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The New Millennial Gay Experience

Being gay in our emerging new world

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Assimilation - Deep Thoughts While Watching "The Fosters"

Posted on July 12, 2013 at 3:05 AM

By Dennis Stone


Assimilation.


To a lot of gay people that is akin to a curse word. Especially to gay people who came of age in the 80s and before, and especially to those who were activists in the gay rights or AIDS struggles.


“Assimilation” is a word generally used to refer to the process of gays trying to become more like straight people, to become more “conventional, bourgeois and conservative”, as longtime activist Don Kilhefner (a co-founder with Harry Hay of the Radical Faeries) put it. That is interpreted as a betrayal and abandonment of their gay identity, an almost cowardly act of desperately trying to fit in with the dominant society, as opposed to the glorious past of standing proudly apart from that whitebread mainstream. Kilhefner again: “Inherent in assimilation ideology is the disappearance of the gay community and gay identity. Gay people would become like hetero tapioca pudding.”


The quintessence of assimilation is the gay family, with two “married” (whether legal or not) partners and children. The archetypal “American dream”: PTA meetings, soccer practice, report cards, family dinners. Contrast that reality with the “traditional” gay lifestyle, as touted by Kilhefner and others: rejection of monogamy and other forms of convention, parties, camp, bars, activism, the arts.


I was thinking about the subject of assimilation the other night while watching “The Fosters”. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a drama on ABC Family about an interracial family headed by a lesbian couple. It was co-created by Peter Paige of “Queer As Folk” fame. Lena and Stef are living a life that really is very much like that of a typical straight family. They work hard to provide a good life for their children, their lives tend to revolve around their children, they face all the normal problems and experience all the normal joys of the straight families that live around them.




The first thought I had while watching this gay family was that it seemed somehow completely “right”. I couldn’t imagine Lena and Stef without their children, or living any other lifestyle. The second thought I had was that both women would reject out of hand any chastising that their fellow gays might give them for not living a traditional gay lifestyle. I’d like to see Kilhefner try to tell Lena that she had become “like hetero tapioca pudding”, or that she was contributing to “the disappearance of the gay community”. Those words would ring awfully shallow in the face of her obligation to raise, guide and provide for her children, and in the face of the immense satisfaction, love and joy those children provide her.


After the show had ended I continued to ponder the whole concept of assimilation in today’s “new millennial” world. What, I asked myself, are gays like Kilhefner really trying to hold on to by remaining resolutely separate from the straight society all around them. I identified several things:


1. Identity and purpose. A sense of identity is one of the primal human needs. Straight people get their identity largely from being parents. Gay people until recently have not had that opportunity, and so the distinct gay community provided that needed identity. We were part of something important, something bigger than ourselves. Our sense of being separate also helped to provide purpose. Some found their purpose in overt activism, fighting for our rights, while others found it simply in defying the conventions of the tapioca pudding people.


2. A sense of being special. To quote Larry Kramer: “I think we are smarter. I think we are more talented. I think we are more aware. I think we make better friends. I think we make better lovers. I think we're more tuned in to what's happening, tuned into the moment, tuned into our emotions, and other people's emotions. Yes, I think that gay people are better than other people.” I’m afraid that’s self-glorifying poppycock. But if you think that way, then “assimilation” is a denial of that superior nature. If we’re no better than straight people, then we lose something.


3. Sexual freedom. The ethos of the traditional “gay community” is to be “sexual outlaws”, to have lots of sex with lots of people. Not everyone thought that way, of course, but it was a dominant strain in the thought. Partly it was just fun, but it was also a finger-in-the-eye rejection of the conventional, oppressive society.


4. Perpetual adolescence. This attribute is not flattering, but that doesn’t make it any less true. “Freedom” can be a wonderful opportunity to live beyond the normal obligations of a conservative majority, but it can also be a rejection of growing up and taking responsibility for life beyond your own pleasure. Parenthood demands that you make major sacrifices for the welfare of your children, and accept obligations beyond your own desires. In contrast, the gay lifestyle has been historically free of those sacrifices and obligations, leaving us essentially free to party, camp it up if we choose, have sex wherever and whenever we want, and basically live like carefree teenagers. We convinced ourselves it was a revolutionary act to live like that, but to a large degree we were deceiving ourselves.


One of the most common human traits is an inability to relate to or understand experiences beyond those you have had yourself. And so gays who lived most of their lives surrounded by hate and distrust have trouble understanding those who have come of age with a primarily accepting straight world around them. Gays who forged an ethos of rejection of the dominant, oppressive society can’t understand those who don’t feel oppressed. Gays who saw the traditional family as a symbol of a hateful and hurtful world feel betrayed by those who now want to pursue that lifestyle.


A concept overlooked by the vehement foes of assimilation is that the reasons for that assimilation have dramatically changed over the past several years. Until recently many of those gays who tried to assimilate did so out of self protection. They sought respectability and acceptance. Straight society disliked gay people partly because they were so different, and therefore so frightening. If gay people could show that they weren’t really so different they could be a part of that society rather than be despised outsiders.



Photo: "Our Family II" by Poes In Boots, via Flickr Creative Commons. License: http/creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en


Today the story is much different. Mainstream straight society is now overwhelmingly accepting. The virulent haters who remain are increasingly seen as a fringe element. It was telling that when basketball player Jason Collins recently came out there were no critical voices whatever in the mainstream media, and any of the very few critical voices in the rest of society were strongly and immediately shushed. Compare that to the societal environment that existed throughout the 20th century.


When gay people live what Kilhefner would call assimilationist lifestyles they are not doing it in a desperate attempt to gain acceptance, but because those are the lifestyles they want to live. Lena and Stef Foster want to raise their children because that’s what their psyches tell them to do. They adopted Jesus and Mariana, and are fostering Callie and Jude because they feel driven to make lives better for others. I suspect that the overwhelming number of gay parents today aren’t trying to be straight, aren’t seeking to be tapioca, aren’t going conservative, but feel a calling to grow up, take responsibility, and live for something and someone beyond themselves.


Within this reality is the truly revolutionary nature of what I call the “new millennial gay experience”. Gay people of the past COULDN’T live “normal” lives, they were forced to construct separate communities to feel accepted and understood. To their credit they made the best of a bad situation and created meaningful and fulfilling lives with pride and purpose. They also bravely pushed and fought and agitated for acceptance and equality. Ironically, it’s their success that has created today’s world, where living within a unique, separate community is not the only practical option. I just wish they could see today’s “modern” gays as a product of their success, rather than as a challenge to it.

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11 Comments

Reply The_Fixer
2:20 AM on July 13, 2013 
Well, this is a thought-provoking piece. I'll try and present some coherent thoughts on this, but there is a lot of nuance in this discussion. I'll start by saying that we might be blurring the line between assimilation and acceptance in this discussion.

Assimilation is largely in the eye of the one who is presenting that possibility, when in reality it is matter of degree. In a way, I am assimilated in that I work with and interact with straight people all the time - with only a minimum of trouble to be had. However, even in the minds of the most accepting of my friends, I am different simply because I am gay. That will always be true because it's a fact. It's a matter of numbers - there are many more straight people than there are gay people, and our ways are not their ways.

So even though I am not completely outcast in that I work and coexist with straight people, I have been accepted but have not been completely assimilated. I am not partnered nor am I raising a family, which seems to be some kind of a benchmark of assimilation. I flatly reject the notion that in order to be considered "mature" and "responsible" I must raise children. If we're using the straight world as a yardstick, I know plenty of straight couples who have no business having children because they are neither mature or responsible. Maturity and responsibility are completely external to the desire to raise children, and I wish that we as a society would move past that. Intended childbirth should not be considered an automatic part of the progression of one's life, any more than unintended childbirth is. To subscribe to that philosophy is very much like saying "because we've always done it that way" without giving much thought to the action itself, and that action's consequences. It's the creation of a life, and if you mess up, a person's life is messed up. It's not like choosing the wrong car. You can't trade-in a kid if you make a wrong child-rearing decision.

Let's not confuse acceptance with assimilation. I think we'd all like acceptance and even if we live in a heteronormative society, not be discriminated against and regarded as poison even if we and others recognize our differences. However, we should not have to be completely assimilated (as measured by that children/white-picket-fenced-in-house yardstick) in order to be accepted.

If that's the measure, I am not ever going to be assimilated. I'm fine with that, and other people should be, too. But if assimilation involves being "just the guy next door", then I'm also fine with that. My life is not the promiscuous model of gay life that's been presented by so many, but it does involve being different and enjoying gay friends, going to a gay bar (they really are much more fun than straight bars) and working for gay rights and gay acceptance when I can.

It also has to be said that I am not dismissing gay people who do choose to raise children. I think gay people enter into such an endeavour with a whole lot more thought than most straight people do, simply because we have to go through effort that a lot of straight people usually don' t. But I don't think it's a good requirement for acceptance or assimilation.

In the end, I think there's room for people to live their lives as they see fit, without undue interference from the majority. Right now, we're not completely there. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I'm loving that it's not a train coming at me.

At least I hope it's not.
Reply John
4:06 PM on July 12, 2013 
Dennis Stone says...
However, and it's almost impossible to get people on your side of this to acknowledge it, but there's a huge trap in a sense of victimhood. In my experience there is a greater percentage of "your side" in that trap than there are people on my side in the trap you mentioned. Look at all the gay websites (except this one!) They all trot out daily a never-ending litany of anti-gay stories and comments. There's always going to be some nabob from Alabama who says something dumb, or a Catholic bishop, or any of the usual suspects (Bryan Fischer, et al) that get quoted time and time again, even though they never say anything new. The result is a mindset of victimhood that doesn't reflect reality and doesn't acknowledge all the advances and societal shifts. You can see that victimhood reflected in comment after comment on message boards across the internet. One of the goals of this site is to see beyond that to how things REALLY are. The history lessons are an attempt to allow younger or forgetful readers to understand where we came from and the oppression that did exist far more rampantly than today. But a lot of the people on your side of things think we're still back in those dark ages, and we simply aren't.

Well first, I don't view us as being on different "sides". I agree with some of the NMG as you've laid it out and disagree with other parts of it. I cherry pick my philosophies.

Second, I agree with you about too easily falling into the mindset of the victim. At the same time, there is no question that many if not all of us have been victimized for being non-heterosexual. Even if it was something as simple as being made to feel bad by a remark (but let's not get into the "hate is not in their hearts" discussion again). There is a distinction between being victimized and being a victim. The rioters at Stonewall were victimized by the NYPD but they refused to be the NYPD's victims.

Maybe our definitions of "victimhood" are different, or maybe we just frequent different websites, but the ones I go to do feature the latest pronouncements from the usual gang of idiots but they also feature the positive stories. For every WBC picket report there's a story about the girl who set up a lemonade stand across the street. And the comments are far from wallowing in victimhood.

And yeah, it can get a little tiresome to read about the same handful of right-wing lunatics offering new permutations of the same old song, it's important that we maintain an awareness of their words and acts, not so we can feel victimized by them, but so that we can expose them and demand that their views be placed in the appropriate extremist context. And we need to be aware of the, for lack of a better term, real victims, the kids driven to suicide by bullies, the lesbians subjected to corrective rape, the gay men who are murdered because a straight man decided he looked at him funny, not because we should internalize their tragedies into our own sense of victimhood but so that we can increase out efforts to stop such things from continuing to happen and so they cannot be ignored by the straights.

I feel like I'm becoming maybe a little more militant than I intended so I'll break off here.
Reply Dennis Stone
3:16 PM on July 12, 2013 
Yes, there is a trap in NMG thinking regarding not seeing the oppression of others or focusing just on what you have yourself in isolation from others. That is true. However, and it's almost impossible to get people on your side of this to acknowledge it, but there's a huge trap in a sense of victimhood. In my experience there is a greater percentage of "your side" in that trap than there are people on my side in the trap you mentioned. Look at all the gay websites (except this one!) They all trot out daily a never-ending litany of anti-gay stories and comments. There's always going to be some nabob from Alabama who says something dumb, or a Catholic bishop, or any of the usual suspects (Bryan Fischer, et al) that get quoted time and time again, even though they never say anything new. The result is a mindset of victimhood that doesn't reflect reality and doesn't acknowledge all the advances and societal shifts. You can see that victimhood reflected in comment after comment on message boards across the internet. One of the goals of this site is to see beyond that to how things REALLY are. The history lessons are an attempt to allow younger or forgetful readers to understand where we came from and the oppression that did exist far more rampantly than today. But a lot of the people on your side of things think we're still back in those dark ages, and we simply aren't.

John says...
Oh come on Dennis, you never needed me as an excuse for your verbosity! LOL

I agree that everyone's life experiences shape their cultural filters but I don't think there's a direct comparison available between gay filters and straight filters. We're trained in their culture for years, sometimes decades, before we discover our own. We have their stuff.

I was specifically talking about not having a sense of the oppressive culture and the danger of expanding one's personal sense of not being oppressed into blinding oneself to the larger societal realities. I find that to be a mark of immaturity and selfishness, a very "I got mine who cares about yours" attitude. I'm not saying that it's an automatic thing or that it's part and parcel of any NMG philosophy. Only that it's an easy trap to fall into. To a greater or lesser degree I feel the same way about anyone, gay or straight, who doesn't care about history or non-gay social justice issues or who doesn't read books or who refuses to watch black-and-white movies, if you can follow my tenuous connection there. I'm not making a "none of us is free so long as one is in bondage" argument.

And (unless I specify) I'm not speaking about you directly when I say these things so if you're receiving what I'm trying to present as general discussion points as any sort of personal attack then I apologize for not expressing myself better.
Reply John
2:37 PM on July 12, 2013 
Dennis Stone says...
Jeez John, whenever you write a substantive reply to one of my articles I feel like writing another article to expand on things!

Oh come on Dennis, you never needed me as an excuse for your verbosity! LOL

I agree that everyone's life experiences shape their cultural filters but I don't think there's a direct comparison available between gay filters and straight filters. We're trained in their culture for years, sometimes decades, before we discover our own. We have their stuff.

I was specifically talking about not having a sense of the oppressive culture and the danger of expanding one's personal sense of not being oppressed into blinding oneself to the larger societal realities. I find that to be a mark of immaturity and selfishness, a very "I got mine who cares about yours" attitude. I'm not saying that it's an automatic thing or that it's part and parcel of any NMG philosophy. Only that it's an easy trap to fall into. To a greater or lesser degree I feel the same way about anyone, gay or straight, who doesn't care about history or non-gay social justice issues or who doesn't read books or who refuses to watch black-and-white movies, if you can follow my tenuous connection there. I'm not making a "none of us is free so long as one is in bondage" argument.

And (unless I specify) I'm not speaking about you directly when I say these things so if you're receiving what I'm trying to present as general discussion points as any sort of personal attack then I apologize for not expressing myself better.
Reply Jellybean
1:27 PM on July 12, 2013 
As a 70's+ single gay man, I can tell you I wish I could have assimilated into main-stream society. I would very much like to be treated by my neighbors the same way they treat the straight single old people in my neighborhood. Yes, I did the gay bar visitation when I was younger. But, remember, that was the best place to meet people like youself. I would have enjoyed a straight friend saying "I have some for you to meet." That never happened to me.

And, I think some gay people use the "being different" as a shock factor saying "Don't mess with me I'm different and I don't give a damn what you think."
Reply Lucas Butler
12:58 PM on July 12, 2013 
Great piece, Dennis! For those who haven't read it, I highly recommend Googling the "Tragedy of Today's Gays" speech that Larry Kramer quote comes from. I may not agree with his ideas, but I still find them utterly fascinating and thought-provoking. Essentially, he comes from an age where the gay community could only assert itself by gathering into one homogenous mob and forcibly enacting change. Given his life experiences, he has a very understandable fear that the dissolution of the gay ghetto and the integration of gay and straight people into each other's lives will result in the loss of that "voice" and the subsequent genocide of all gay people.

However, while I respect his ideas, I feel they don't apply much to my life. 90% of my friends are straight. That's not through a deliberate choice of my own. It merely means I was (like most gay people) born to a straight couple in a predominantly straight neighborhood. That's just the way genetics work. Unlike most cultural divides, gay people and straight people come pre-integrated. Segregation only comes later, as adults use it to cope with and rally against bigotry. However, once that bigotry has (mostly) dissapeared, so does the need for self-enforced segregation. This results in kids like me who chose to (and can!) keep largely the same group of friends and interests they did before they came out.

I realize the fight is not done. But we all chose to fight it in different ways. No matter how great we make our gay ghettos, there will always be gay kids who are born to straight parents and raised with mostly straight friends. Its a fact of life. In my opinion, instead of building separate homes those kids can run away to when they turn 18, we should work on changing the houses they already live in. Make being LGBT an unremarkable part of the mainstream, and the next generation of LGBT kids will be able to unremarkably come out at 14 like I did, preventing a whole lot of long-term emotional scars and suicide.
Reply Hue-Man
12:20 PM on July 12, 2013 
As I've commented before, I don't see the point in demanding conformity. For all of the points you made about straight v. gay, there are exceptions in the straight community: straight couples who choose not to have children, straight people who think they are smarter than everyone else (a few who acknowledge they may not be as smart), straight men - especially - who seek to maximize their female sex partners and who often act like they never left their adolescence. Some straight people live outside established norms - bikers, hippie/communes, polygamous marriages, and every other non-vanilla flavor imaginable. Are you any less gay because you choose to walk your dog in the park and volunteer at the local food bank or do anything else "conventional"?

Straight world has a model for those gays who decry assimilation: the Amish have done it for centuries, Hasidic Jews have found a separate existence within an urban environment, the End-of-Worlders are building self-contained bunkers. I don't tell straight people how to live their lives, why should I not do the same with gay people?
Living in Canada is not the same as the current US situation that John describes but the Pennsylvania AG's announcement shows how quickly the legal inequalities for gays and lesbians can be knocked down. Dennis is trying to start a discussion about the gay world after equality has been achieved - yes, there are still gays in Canada. I firmly believe there will be a distinct gay culture for decades to come; all you have to do is watch one episode of 1 Girl 5 Gays (with its 20- and 30-something Toronto gay men) to be convinced of that!

BTW, the episode before last of The Fosters had the young son (7 or 8?) going to school wearing nail polish and his male classmate/friend came to school the next day with his nails painted, in solidarity. Whether he's straight or GBT, it was cute.
Reply Dennis Stone
11:53 AM on July 12, 2013 
John says...
At the risk of sounding self-glorifying, I do believe that being gay in a straight culture does allow for access to, for lack of a better term, a set of cultural filters that heterosexuals don't have access to. Not everyone chooses to access those filters but they're still there. I choose to apply those filters fairly extensively. If that makes me anti-assimilationist then so be it.


Jeez John, whenever you write a substantive reply to one of my articles I feel like writing another article to expand on things! (Which I actually did with the Robbie Rogers article.) I'll avoid that here, though assimilation is worthy of being revisited at some point. For now I have four points:

1. Being gay does indeed give you cultural filters that straight people don't have. But being straight gives them cultural filters that WE don't have. You can think you understand the reality of conceiving and raising children, but until you actually do it you don't really understand it. The cultural filter thing goes in many directions, whether it be race, or affluence vs. poverty, or business vs. arts, or whatever.

2. You say you can't understand people who don't feel oppressed, and the implication I always get from people when I talk about the new millennial lifestyle is that I (and people who have that outlook) are overlooking the oppression out there, and are conveniently forgetting all the people not as lucky as we are. Never mind that I always insert comments acknowledging exactly that understanding on my part. Read the "Post-Gay" article Andy and I did, or my original "In My Tribe" article, or the "About Us" page on this site. You actually have this turned around. So many gays who resent the new outlook are reacting as if a lack of equality anywhere, oppression anywhere, invalidates the experiences of those who by and large are living oppression-free lives. It's as if as long as the Westboro Baptist Church and others like them are out there, we all have to feel beaten down just as we did in the 1980s and earlier.

Millions and millions of us live ESSENTIALLY free lives. Those people and those lives should be acknowledged and celebrated. The fact that someone might call us a name sometime, or that others aren't as lucky shouldn't invalidate the reality of the lives those millions are able to live.

3. My piece was generally very respectful of older generations of gays and their outlooks. The whole point of the piece was not to criticize how they might choose to live, but to be a DEFENSE against the attacks - often remarkably vicious attacks - from those people against others who choose a different path. Kramer and Kilhefner and others DO talk as though THEIR way of being gay is the only valid way. The one area of criticism was regarding "perpetual adolescence", and there is a lot of truth in that. Though I totally respect Kramer and Kilhefner for infusing their lives with responsibility and "growing up" in their efforts to fight for equality, AIDS responses and the like.

4. You're amused that I'm touting assimilation as a post millennial thing when being "just like everyone else" was the point of much gay activism. The point, though, is that the NATURE of that assimilation is so much different. And Kilhefner himself rejected the tack that we try to convince straights we're like them. He wanted gay self-respect to replace "acting respectable". But the thing is that back then we were trying to force our way into straight society. Today, people like Lena and Stef (and me, and, I suspect, you) simply ARE an accepted part of the mainstream society (with all the usual caveats of not everyone - especially in rural areas - being so lucky). That's a massive sociological shift, and opens gay people up to choices they didn't have before.
Reply Dennis Stone
11:02 AM on July 12, 2013 
John says...
Oh and since this piece grew out of watching "The Fosters" I wanted to mention NBC's "Camp" which includes as secondary characters an interracial male couple raising a child, or possibly children. Only the pilot has aired and I'm not clear on who all is related to whom yet. It airs Wednesdays and is currently available on NBC's site and probably On Demand. There was an interesting bit that connects back to the "dykes" moment on "The Fosters" where the son of the camp's owner (I think) uses the word "faggy" to the couple's pre-teen daughter. Another take on the "their words aren't in their hearts" discussion.


Camp sounds interesting. I don't get a chance to keep up with TV very well, so thanks for that suggestion. I have On Demand, so I'll have to see if the premiere is out there.
Reply John
10:44 AM on July 12, 2013 
Oh and since this piece grew out of watching "The Fosters" I wanted to mention NBC's "Camp" which includes as secondary characters an interracial male couple raising a child, or possibly children. Only the pilot has aired and I'm not clear on who all is related to whom yet. It airs Wednesdays and is currently available on NBC's site and probably On Demand. There was an interesting bit that connects back to the "dykes" moment on "The Fosters" where the son of the camp's owner (I think) uses the word "faggy" to the couple's pre-teen daughter. Another take on the "their words aren't in their hearts" discussion.
Reply John
10:34 AM on July 12, 2013 
At the risk of sounding self-glorifying, I do believe that being gay in a straight culture does allow for access to, for lack of a better term, a set of cultural filters that heterosexuals don't have access to. Not everyone chooses to access those filters but they're still there. I choose to apply those filters fairly extensively. If that makes me anti-assimilationist then so be it.

Intended or not, I'm detecting a whiff of superiority in this piece. Superiority in the assertion of the heteronormative model of family as the mature choice, the embracing of that construction as a sign of having grown up and rejection of it as adolescent. It's the same message that we're bombarded with in life and in the media, this model of "family" that seemingly requires children to be a part of the equation. As if you're not a "real" family unless you have or at least want kids. Families are social constructs and if some choose to construct their families so as not to include children, or so as not to include a single committed partner, or even so as to include lots of sex with lots of people, that choice is no less valid than the choice of Stef and Lena to replicate a heteronormative family structure.

However much my personal ethos may be built out of rejection of the dominant oppressive society I will freely admit that I cannot understand gay people who feel no sense of societal oppression. If we aren't living in an oppressive society, why are we still struggling to create a country where we are free to work where we choose, live where we choose, marry who we choose? When a same-sex couple can't buy a wedding cake because Jesus and a significant percentage of the population agrees with that, that's oppression. We certainly don't have to glorify our oppression but we would be foolish to pretend that it doesn't exist. If you're fortunate enough to live in a state where your employment rights and marital rights are protected, good for you, but you have plenty of gay brothers and sisters out there who aren't. Extending a personal sense of freedom from oppression to the entire culture is naive to the point of being dangerous.

I'm more than a little amused that assimilation is touted as some post-millennial thing when the basic message of the first two decades of sustained American gay activism largely revolved around the concept of "we're just like everybody else".

I feel like I may be rambling a bit, so just to be clear, I fully respect and support anyone who chooses to "assimilate" or "mainstream" or whatever term one wants to use, up to and including permanent partnership (legal or otherwise) and raising children. Just so long as those who make that choice also fully respect and support those who for whatever reason make a different decision.