OTI Online
Fall 1997

The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture
Book Reviews by Jaclyn Geller


Readers will find neither speculation on the origins of homosexual identity nor an articulation of the gay rights agenda. Harris's study is pure cultural criticism.


Sometime in my very early adolescence, I acquired, while living in the very heart of Appalachia, a land of lazy Southern drawls, a British accent." Daniel Harris's brilliant study, The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, begins with this telling personal anecdote. In the 1950s, a precocious adolescent living in a small North Carolina town begins to emulate the patrician accents of film actresses, thereby participating in an important form of early gay self-identification: diva worship. The homosexual obsession with and imitation of glamorous actresses such as Bette Davis, Katherine Hepburn and Grace Kelly, Harris argues, did not stem from the furtive desire to be a woman, as has commonly been supposed. Rather, it expressed the rural gay man's alienation from his provincial surroundings and the yearning to transport himself to the genteel Manhattan apartments where he would relax, with other "unconventional" types, in an urban environment free of sexual shame and judgment. In addition, the steely Machiavellian personalities of such female film stars as Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich empowered the insecure gay man by offering a vision of power based on verbal facility and psychological toughness rather than muscle. The film diva, Harris argues, "provided the psychological models for gay militancy that helped radicalize the subculture."

As the homosexual community has achieved a collective identity and come together with an agenda of specific demands, the diva's role in gay culture has waned. Today, in the post-Stonewall era of gay pride, there is no longer the need for telltale signs and gestures that communicate one's sexual identity to a furtive cohort. Harris observes that many young gay men today have never watched a Joan Crawford film and are only vaguely familiar with the careers of once-revered divas through the mockeries of the dying art of camp, drag and other forms of kitschy humor which punish the diva for growing old and satirize her unsuccessful attempts to cling to youth and glamour. The secret language assimilated from the speech and gestures of the Hollywood diva is no longer necessary; the subculture has begun to assimilate.

The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture chronicles this assimilation process through the examination of a series of cultural phenomena. Gay personal advertisements, gay pornography and gay underwear are among the unlikely subjects that make their way into Harris's study. Readers will find neither speculation on the origins of homosexual identity nor an articulation of the gay-rights agenda. Harris's study is pure cultural criticism. It documents the emergence of a discrete, gay sensibility denoted as the political response to oppression and not as an innate predisposition to the arts and to aestheticism.

Harris demonstrates how the ostracism of gays in the 1930s and 1940s was followed by a wave of mutual recognition and solidarity in the 1950s, with such milestones as the formation of the moderate gay-lib organization, the Mattachine Society. The 1960s saw increasing dissatisfaction with what was perceived as an apologetic brand of political activism. In 1969, on the evening of Judy Garland's death, a group of drag queens took up arms against police who were attempting to shut down a popular New York City gay bar. The Stonewall riots, which have achieved legendary status in the gay community, began the merger between gay activism and radical politics. The 1970s, 1980s and 1990s witnessed the widespread acceptance of homosexuals, precipitating their assimilation and the loss of those features distinctive to gay men: aestheticism and camp humor. Harris does not bemoan the decline of gay-male sensibility; he admits that homogenization is an inevitable by product of the admission of gays into the American mainstream. However, he surveys the complexities and ironies of the assimilation process in brilliant detail.

The Thrill of Romance

One of the signature features of the "fall" of gay culture has been the heterosexualization of homosexual romance, a trend which Harris analyzes, primarily through scrutiny of gay personal ads. The early gay personals had the quality of a message in a bottle, a call for companionship from a lonely and disenfranchised figure. Such nondescript statements as "Will write to anyone who writes me" and "Will respond to all men within a radius of 100 miles" attest to the deprivation of homosexuals, when isolated gays advertised in search of a figure whom Harris terms the "Man Without Qualities."

This featureless individual has now been replaced, in gay personals, by a "Mr. Right," identical to the idealized male partner of heterosexual romance fictions. Current personals, written in an atmosphere of unapologetic homosexuality, contain lengthy lists of prerequisites. The advertiser's correspondent must meet certain physical, emotional and financial requirements if he is to be considered a candidate for love. In addition, he plays the same redemptive role as the modern-day husband, who offers to simultaneously fulfill the single girl's emotional, sexual and financial needs, while granting her the social prestige of sanctioned partnership.

Sometimes, as in the much-touted Unitarian marriage of Bob and Rod Paris-Jackson, documented in the 1994 memoir, Straight from the Heart, gay courtship imitates convention-bound heterosexual romance in every detail. Such unions, Harris argues, comprise a form of ethnic self-nullification which, in mimicking the luxuriousness of the majority, de-eroticizes the gay relationship.

Female readers will be particularly interested in Harris's account of the co-optation of homosexuals by corporate America -- what he terms "the commercialization of the subculture." As an early, invisible minority, gays did not represent a significant consumer force. When gay men emerged as a visible sector of the consumer population -- trendsetters with expensive tastes and $500 billion of annual spending power -- corporations were quick to cash in.

A strong undercurrent of gay self-perception within a homophobic culture is the sense of one's body as weak and unattractive -- the vessel of shameful impulses. This has caused a distorted and unstable physical self-image similar to that held by many American women. The gay-male beauty industry, characterized by such self-help manuals as Charles Hix's 1977 Looking Good, capitalizes on this sentiment, codifying what Harris terms the homosexual "bourgeois body," an instrument that must be subjected to rigorous routines of exercise and skin, hair and nail care, all of which are intended to stave off encroaching old age.

This gay cult of youth is nowhere more evident than in contemporary homosexual glossy magazines such as Genre, Out and the now defunct 10 Percent, which omit photographs of anyone over the age of 40 featuring "a racially pure group of young, prosperous beauties." Such magazines, Harris argues, combine social prescription with wish fulfillment, catering to gay male fantasies just as ladies' fashion magazines create a dreamworld into which the dowdy housewife can step while remaining tormented by her own physical inadequacy.

Yet Harris's discussion of the commercialization of the gay subculture is refreshingly free of paranoid conspiracy theories. His study emphasizes the complicity of homosexuals in their own manipulation as a purchasing group. Feminists justifiably frustrated with the traps set by Madison Avenue to ensnare the female consumer will be sobered by Harris's analysis of the way the legal progress and economic abuse can go hand in hand. He points out that no group of sinister executives has ever conspired to destroy the self-images of gay men: "We invited corporate America into our lives, begged and pleaded with it to recognize our economic potential, to harness our tremendous buying power and pay homage to our political strength. The selling of gay culture was a synergistic arrangement. . . ."

Readers of this book may object to what seems to be an overly optimistic interpretation of recent history. Are gay men and lesbians really gaining rapid acceptance by the American public? State after state rejects antidiscrimination bills; homosexuals are still excluded from the United States military. Enclaves of social scientists still labor to understand the "nature" of homosexuality and to isolate the distinctive traits of the gay male, suggesting that his activities are symptoms of pathology.

In a talk that he recently gave at New York's Lesbian and Gay Community Center, Daniel Harris addressed the issue of his book's apparent optimism, claiming that his study is more a projection than the description of a fait accompli. The assimilation of homosexuals into mainstream American life, he stated, is well under way. As it intensifies, gay men will gain greater personal liberty and lose the features that once distinguished them as a unique minority that made remarkable contributions to theater, literature and the visual arts. The twentieth-century art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner retaliated against the Boston Brahmins who rejected her by amassing one of the most extraordinary private art collections in the nation. Similarly, Daniel Harris asserts, disenfranchised gay males of the pre-Stonewall era built their self-esteem on the foundation of aesthetic elitism. As cultural and legal prohibitions lift, the "artistic" gay temperament will lose its once-distinct shape. The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture claims that the demise of an oppressed but unique and productive subgroup should not be lamented as a tragedy; it should be acknowledged and understood.


JACLYN GELLER is a doctoral candidate in English literature and an instructor in New York University's writing program.


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