Just What Is ‚Gay Culture‘ In 2013?

What, if anything, is gay culture? The question is a hard enough for one to answer, but one fact is clear: the answer would surely be strikingly different depending on what time period one is speaking about. For reasons that will become clear, I’ll divide the whole history, like Gaul, into three parts. One kind of “gay culture” dominated in the years and, indeed, centuries before the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York; another was in its ascendance during the brief but extremely busy and colorful couple of decades that followed; and a third began to take shape in the early 1990s.

But let’s begin by going back twenty years – to 1993, when I published a book entitled A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society. The book represented a challenge both to anti-gay prejudice and to the monolithic, marginalized notion of gay identity that was promoted – and enforced – by the gay cultural and political left of the day, which insisted that gays who, say, wanted to join the military, or attend church, or who lived in committed relationships were aping the straight majority and betraying the queer nation, probably because they were “self-hating” or “sex-negative” or both. This fact has long since been conveniently dropped down the memory hole, but in 1993 virtually all of the leaders of the gay political establishment were fiercely opposed to the idea of gay marriage, and they vilified as sellouts those of us who supported it.

My book – and I am only saying this to make a point – was for several months running the #1 bestseller in America’s gay bookstores, those busy, vibrant temples of gay cultural life that thrived during those couple of decades after Stonewall. I remember going to a Manhattan party at which I didn’t know any of the other guests – none of whom knew I’d be there – and seeing, on the bed, along with everybody’s coats, no fewer than four copies of A Place at the Table.  

The book helped set off an intense and urgent debate within what was generally known as the “gay community” (a term that I have always resisted, and that I think most young gay Americans nowadays also react to with skepticism). The book was ardently discussed – and, in most cases, vigorously attacked – in national gay magazines such as The Advocate and Out and Ten Percent and in such local gay publications as New York’s Native, which I had cited in the book as a sort of totem of the official gay culture of the day. My national tours for the book’s hardcover and paperback editions consisted largely of readings and talks at gay bookstores and interviews with local gay newspapers. I still remember walking halfway across San Francisco one evening with an interviewer for a local gay paper who was as passionately engaged in his questions as I was in my answers. It was a time when there was indeed such a thing as “gay culture” in America, and it was a culture in ferment – and in transition.

At the same time, it must be added that gay culture, since a time long before any of us were born, had been, even for its foremost creators and champions, a concept fraught with ambiguity and paradox. Gay-activist leaders, leftists all, were enemies of mainstream culture who insisted that gays were the vanguard of a revolution against capitalism and, indeed, against the entire premise and project of Western civilization; and yet the more sophisticated of them held up as heroes of the “community” people like Oscar Wilde, Benjamin Britten, and W.H. Auden, who were pillars of Western civilization and mainstream culture and whose own politics, in many cases, were hardly leftist.

Then there was the ever-present question of what exactly did and did not constitute gay culture. Did a novel about gay male characters by a straight woman count? Or, for that matter, a novel about straight people by a gay writer? How much gay innuendo in a lyric by Cole Porter or Larry Hart or Noel Coward was necessary to make it a legitimate part of the gay-cultural corpus? Was there something specifically gay that could be identified – isolated, almost as if in a chemistry lab – in the works of artists as diverse as James Merrill and Allen Ginsberg, Glenway Wescott and Gore Vidal? Were the sequences of Gone With the Wind directed by George Cukor a part of gay culture and those helmed by Victor Fleming not?

Yet if one could not precisely demarcate the limits of gay culture, there was no question that it existed. It was part of mainstream culture, and yet not. It had a long and noble heritage, reaching back to the likes of Michelangelo and Marlowe (if not to Shakespeare himself). It had flourished despite the reality of the closet, and indeed the closet itself played a key role in shaping its distinctive nature. The closet demanded subtlety, indirection; it required that an artist tell the truth, but tell it slant. By indirections, find directions out.

Over the centuries, to be sure, there were occasional sensational exceptions, and from Oscar Wilde onward, gay writers, filmmakers, songwriters, and other artists – among them Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal – shocked audiences from time to time by the sheer act of acknowledging in their works the existence of homosexuality and the humanity of homosexuals. There were also occasional works in various genres in which gay characters, often only implicitly identified as such, met tragic ends, the implicit point being that this was, if not their just desserts, then the inevitable fate of persons who have no natural place in society. (The 1996 documentary The Celluloid Closet, based on the work of Vito Russo, is the definitive study of precisely this phenomenon in pre-Stonewall Hollywood movies.) As the twentieth century moved into its last decades, there were increasing efforts in various pockets of mainstream culture – from the soap opera One Life to Live, which in 1992-93 featured a storyline about a gay teenager, to the movie Philadelphia – to promote gay visibility in a way that did not shock or smear but normalize.

By the end of the 1970s, moreover, in addition to the gay artists who made major contributions to the mainstream culture, there was another new twist: the establishment of a full-fledged, substantial, and open culture of, by, and for gay people, one that permitted artists to focus explicitly and even exclusively on gay lives – a commendable development, yet one that, despite increasing acceptance of gay people in certain quarters, tended to limit their audiences to gay people. It was into this culture that I flung, as it were, A Place at the Table, arguing, in essence, against the idea of a gay ghetto, whether in life or in culture.

Twenty years later, that cultural ghetto is much diminished, and the urgent questions of yesteryear about the gay marginalization vs. mainstreaming have retreated with a long, withdrawing roar. Today the Native is long forgotten. Ten Percent folded years ago. The once-influential Out and The Advocate have been struggling for years to stay afloat and in any case feel irrelevant in a way one could never have imagined in their heyday. One by one, local gay newspapers have closed up shop – including Washington, D.C.’s, Blade, probably the closest thing gay America had to a newspaper of record. Virtually all of America’s gay bookstores are gone, and indeed the very idea of a “gay book” has all but disappeared.

To a degree, of course, these changes, like those that mainstream culture has undergone in recent years, can be attributed to the rise of the Internet; but the collapse of so many leading institutions of gay culture is even more the result of a cultural sea change among America’s gay population itself. The fact is that the fierce intramural debates about identity that raged in the wake of A Place at the Table have long since been universally resolved in favor of the unremarkable idea that gay people should have the same right as straight people to be individuals with their own political views, cultural tastes, and social – i.e. “lifestyle” – choices. (Universally, that is, except in university queer-studies programs, where gay students who came out at the age of thirteen or fourteen and to whom it has never occurred to regard their gayness as a matter of radical difference are encouraged to think of themselves as marginal and embattled).

Yes, there are still young gay people in America – whether in Kansas, Kankakee, or Queens – who live in closeted terror and who are bullied relentlessly at school. Some are driven to suicide. But the attitudes that cause such tragedies are, thankfully, on the retreat. More and more gay people today are recognizing their gayness at astonishingly young ages, and they wear their gayness with a remarkable lightness; they take for granted the rightness of gay marriage and, unlike their counterparts of twenty – let alone forty or sixty or eighty – years ago, are as sure as their straight friends that one day they will settle down with a special someone and live a more or less ordinary life.

In A Place at the Table – and this was, remember, 1993 – I wrote that “prime-time shows like Roseanne and Melrose Place have included gay characters – but these aren’t major characters, portrayed fully enough so that viewers can feel involved in their lives; rather, they are invariably peripheral, placed in the background in self-conscious gestures of tolerance and diversity on the part of the producers.” Similarly, I noted that on one episode after another of The Golden Girls “some friend or relative of the out to be gay,” thus providing “a lesson in acceptance.” Yet despite the good intentions behind these programs, I argued, such episodes could not avoid “treat[ing] homosexuality as an issue” and implying “that gay people never do anything except have sex and talk about being gay.” I suggested that “the first sign of real change will be when TV series have regular homosexual characters (not marginal ones) who have actual romantic relationships, who talk about something other than homosexuality, and whose family and work lives are treated in the same way as those of straight characters.”

Well, that time has long since come. Will and Grace is invariably cited as a watershed. Brokeback Mountain ditto (even though its ending – one part tragic death, one part eternal loneliness – made use of a perennial cliché of mainstream drama about gays that Vito Russo would have recognized). Then there’s Glee, a phenomenon I would never have dared to imagine twenty years ago: a TV series that features high-school boys singing love songs to each other and that – astonishingly, for someone who was alive at the time of Stonewall – is apparently a big hit among teenagers, gay and straight. Once upon a time you could count on one hand the number of openly gay people in showbiz; now you can’t begin to keep track of them all. A play mainly about gay characters is no longer necessarily either a “problem play” or an entertainment for niche audiences. First-rate gay authors such as Alan Hollingshurst continue to write about gay protagonists, but fewer gay people seem to feel driven to read them, even as more straight readers feel perfectly comfortable doing so.

One aspect of all this is that more and more gay people today, not feeling marginalized and embattled as a group in the way that their counterparts of a generation ago did, feel less and less of a need to cling tightly to the label that once would have bound them together. They watch Glee, but they watch it with their straight friends, and they don’t experience the love duets between the boys as a cultural breakthrough or a political statement on their behalf but as just another performance, like the boy-girl songs. They may enjoy reading fiction but see no reason to pick up a novel just because it’s by a gay writer.

Still, authors do continue to write “gay novels” and “gay plays” and to pitch ideas for “gay storylines” to TV networks and movie producers. What, then, does this say about gay culture today? What, if anything, does it amount to? When gays, socially speaking, are in the process of being integrated into the mainstream, and when the cultural works created by and/or about gay people are no longer consumed exclusively or even mostly by gay people, what does this say about what gay culture has become? In what ways, moreover, has the mainstreaming of openly gay culture (as opposed to the covertly gay culture of the Noel Cowards and W.H. Audens that was always a part of the mainstream) changed the mainstream? These are big – and fascinating – questions, and the answers are elaborate and complicated. But it seems to me that the best contemporary works of “gay culture” are those that manage to bring together the best of pre- and post-Stonewall gay culture – combining, that is, the wit, subtlety, and indirection of the former with the latter’s ebullient sense of self-discovery and frank delight in the pursuit of happiness, while avoiding the former’s clenched, fearful anxiety about openness and the latter’s dreadful tendency toward agitprop. What do you think?

Guest commentary curated by Forbes Opinion. Avik Roy, Opinion Editor.

24 „Gay Culture“ Tweets That Will Hit Way Too Close To Home

„Gay culture is your parents awkwardly referring to your significant other as your friend.“

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The problem when gay culture fetishises masculinity above all else

If we deny the diversity of our bodies, we’re becoming siloed in our desire – and ultimately in our solidarity

It was interesting reading that “photos are only to be taken of boys with muscles. Big ones. The kind of muscles that come about from spending at least five sessions a week at the gym”, because it formalised the reality that our community’s desires are maintained through a hierarchy: boys with flexed muscles at the top. It’s also true that muscular and toned bodies are over-represented in our mainstream pornography, club promotional posters, and the wider media. They’ve become central to our desires: to both become and be with. It’s interesting to imagine how this brief, even years ago, cultivated, maintained and encouraged a culture that, to this day, continues to fetishise masculinity above all else.

We need to get better at understanding that continued exposure to these images of what our bodies and desire should look like has incredible effects on our self-worth, our culture, our standards. It creates a cycle of expectation; a pressure on how we should look, act, speak, and who’s deemed desirable. We don’t give enough credence to the idea that our desire and attraction fluctuate and evolve against a backdrop of social influence and cultural persuasion. Instead many of us – in keeping with how we consider our sexuality – prefer to think of desire as fixed, absolute. It’s easier to describe ourselves as masc4masc than to try expand our attraction, just as it’s easier to type “no Blacks, no Asians” than to face the reckoning of our internalised racism.

“They’re just preference”, we scribe, as if preferences come from nowhere at all.

“Poof Doof is a gay club for homos. No-one is here to see girls. Ever.” The implications of this briefing was fascinating. Are people with vaginas not welcome? Or just those overtly feminine, or coded as women? In a more visible queer society where people are increasingly free to present their most authentic gender expression, an “anti-women” stance seems curious. But what’s also curious is that entertainment at our clubs is almost entirely predicated on women’s involvement and representation. It’s in the way we continue clinging onto straight cis women as our “gay icons”, spinning Kylie on the decks, and accepting hyper-femininity and feminine parody through our drag. But women in the club? Unacceptable.

The “woman in the gay club” mythology dances around this extraordinary assumption that she’s there to exude heterosexuality, always planning the next hen’s do. I don’t disagree that the commodification by straight cisgender women is an issue, but what’s so remarkable about this assumption is that it erases lesbian, bi, and queer women from our venues and community. It denies them access and existence, and in doing so, reasserts gay men’s unbridled privilege and power over the queer umbrella.

There will undoubtedly be those who argue that Poof Doof is a privately owned business with the right to discriminate on the basis of branding and values. And they’d undoubtedly be right. I’d be pressed to find a business that doesn’t have a target audience and doesn’t adjust promotional material to reflect and attract this market. But that shouldn’t render Poof Doof immune from critique. Particularly when its inhouse values are at odds with the broader political aims of our community: diversity, acceptance and solidarity.

As one of the most established gay venues south of the Yarra I’d argue that Poof Doof should take responsibility in catering to a broader subsect of the community. The club’s general manager, Susie Robinson, seemingly agrees, telling the Star Observer that the photo brief has been out of circulation for years and is deeply out of step with the club’s current mission, “initially [in 2011] we started out with the tagline ‘a gay club for homos’, but now it’s ‘a gay club for everyone’”. They have however been slow to transition to this all-inclusive motto on their official website.

I fear that we’re becoming siloed in our desire. What’s the cost? Aside from inflated gym memberships it means that our barriers to entry for desirability are higher, access is more difficult, and the pressure to conform is steep. It denies the diversity of our bodies from greater representation, and we all end up losing out. Change requires destabilising our muscle-bound chokehold on desire with ready exposure to new images, new bodies, new expansions to our attraction. We need greater sexual diversity from our wank banks, superstars and club promo material.

What I fear is that we’re also becoming siloed in our solidarity. I fear that our sexuality isn’t enough to anchor us to progressive politics: that if our rights – as white, gay, cisgender men – were to accelerate faster (as they are now) than the rights of our most marginalised, that we wouldn’t stand up. The postal survey activated many of us politically, but will we continue to mobilise when the stakes extend beyond our own?

I refuse to see the Poof Doof photo brief as a sign of shame because it’s an opportunity to reflect, move forward. We don’t strive for diversity for some hold-my-hand merry cherry skip down a rainbow-bricked road. We strive for diversity in an effort to build compassion, empathy and solidarity. We create integrated queer spaces to learn from each other’s experiences, histories, and share our own stories. So when our rights as the most privileged do accelerate faster than everybody else’s, we show up.

In the face of white nationalism, transphobia, HIV stigma, fat-shaming, femmephobia, ableism, misogyny and male violence, we show up. We show up because of our relative privilege, not despite it.

The problem when gay culture fetishises masculinity above all else

History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Social Movements

Bonnie J. Morris, PhD George Washington University Washington, D.C.

An earlier version of this essay was written as an appendix for a lesson plan for high school psychology teachers called The Psychology of Sexual Orientation: a modular lesson plan/teaching resource for high school psychology teachers (login required). The full lesson plan is part of a series of 19 unit lesson plans developed as a benefit for APA members, which are available in the members-only section of the APA website.

Most historians agree that there is evidence of homosexual activity and same-sex love, whether such relationships were accepted or persecuted, in every documented culture.

A brief history of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender social movements/Bonnie J. Morris, PhD

On June 12, 2016, the popular gay dance club Pulse in Orlando was the site of a mass shooting by one assailant. With at least 49 dead and another 50 injured, this hate crime is being called the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. It occurred during what was LGBT Pride weekend for towns and cities in and beyond the United States. The immediate, caring response from mayors, police and FBI authorities, local and national politicians, and the President of the United States, who reached out to express outrage and concern, demonstrates the enormous shift toward acceptance and public support for the LGBT community. Although the LGBT community and individuals remain targets for hate violence and backlash throughout the world, the hard work of activists and allies made it possible to reach this era, where the perpetrators of violence, not the victims, are condemned as sick.

Social movements, organizing around the acceptance and rights of persons who might today identify as LGBT or queer, began as responses to centuries of persecution by church, state and medical authorities. Where homosexual activity or deviance from established gender roles/dress was banned by law or traditional custom, such condemnation might be communicated through sensational public trials, exile, medical warnings and language from the pulpit. These paths of persecution entrenched homophobia for centuries—but also alerted entire populations to the existence of difference. Whether an individual recognized they, too, shared this identity and were at risk, or dared to speak out for tolerance and change, there were few organizations or resources before the scientific and political revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Gradually, the growth of a public media and ideals of human rights drew together activists from all walks of life, who drew courage from sympathetic medical studies, banned literature, emerging sex research and a climate of greater democracy. By the 20th century, a movement in recognition of gays and lesbians was underway, abetted by the social climate of feminism and new anthropologies of difference. However, throughout 150 years of homosexual social movements (roughly from the 1870s to today), leaders and organizers struggled to address the very different concerns and identity issues of gay men, women identifying as lesbians, and others identifying as gender variant or nonbinary. White, male and Western activists whose groups and theories gained leverage against homophobia did not necessarily represent the range of racial, class and national identities complicating a broader LGBT agenda. Women were often left out altogether.

What is the pre-history of LGBT activism? Most historians agree that there is evidence of homosexual activity and same-sex love, whether such relationships were accepted or persecuted, in every documented culture. We know that homosexuality existed in ancient Israel simply because it is prohibited in the Bible, whereas it flourished between both men and women in Ancient Greece. Substantial evidence also exists for individuals who lived at least part of their lives as a different gender than assigned at birth. From the lyrics of same-sex desire inscribed by Sappho in the seventh century BCE to youths raised as the opposite sex in cultures ranging from Albania to Afghanistan; from the “female husbands” of Kenya to the Native American “Two-Spirit,” alternatives to the Western male-female and heterosexual binaries thrived across millennia and culture. These realities gradually became known to the West via travelers’ diaries, the church records of missionaries, diplomats’ journals, and in reports by medical anthropologists. Such eyewitness accounts in the era before other media were of course riddled with the biases of the (often) Western or white observer, and added to beliefs that homosexual practices were other, foreign, savage, a medical issue, or evidence of a lower racial hierarchy. The peaceful flowering of early trans or bisexual acceptance in different indigenous civilizations met with opposition from European and Christian colonizers.

In the age of European exploration and empire-building, Native American, North African and Pacific Islander cultures accepting of “Two-Spirit” people or same-sex love shocked European invaders who objected to any deviation from a limited understanding of “masculine” and “feminine” roles. The European powers enforced their own criminal codes against what was called sodomy in the New World: the first known case of homosexual activity receiving a death sentence in North America occurred in 1566, when the Spanish executed a Frenchman in Florida. Against the emerging backdrop of national power and Christian faith, what might have been learned about same-sex love or gender identity was buried in scandal. Ironically, both wartime conflict between emerging nations and the departure or deaths of male soldiers left women behind to live together and fostered strong alliances between men as well. Same-sex companionship thrived where it was frowned upon for unmarried, unrelated males and females to mingle or socialize freely. Women’s relationships in particular escaped scrutiny since there was no threat of pregnancy. Nonetheless, in much of the world, female sexual activity and sensation were curtailed wherever genital circumcision practices made clitoridectomy an ongoing custom.

Where European dress—a clear marker of gender—was enforced by missionaries, we find another complicated history of both gender identity and resistance. Biblical interpretation made it illegal for a woman to wear pants or a man to adopt female dress, and sensationalized public trials warned against “deviants” but also made such martyrs and heroes popular: Joan of Arc is one example, and the chilling origins of the word “faggot” include a stick of wood used in public burnings of gay men. Despite the risks of defying severe legal codes, cross-dressing flourished in early modern Europe and America. Women and girls, economically oppressed by the sexism which kept them from jobs and economic/education opportunities designated for men only, might pass as male in order to gain access to coveted experiences or income. This was a choice made by many women who were not necessarily transgender in identity. Women “disguised” themselves as men, sometimes for extended periods of years, in order to fight in the military (Deborah Sampson), to work as pirates (Mary Read and Anne Bonney), attend medical school, etc. Both men and women who lived as a different gender were often only discovered after their deaths, as the extreme differences in male vs. female clothing and grooming in much of Western culture made “passing” surprisingly easy in certain environments. Moreover, roles in the arts where women were banned from working required that men be recruited to play female roles, often creating a high-status, competitive market for those we might today identify as transwomen, in venues from Shakespeare’s theatre to Japanese Kabuki to the Chinese opera. This acceptance of performance artists, and the popularity of “drag” humor cross-culturally, did not necessarily mark the start of transgender advocacy, but made the arts an often accepting sanctuary for LGBT individuals who built theatrical careers based around disguise and illusion.

The era of sexology studies is where we first see a small, privileged cluster of medical authorities begin promoting a limited tolerance of those born “invert.” In Western history, we find little formal study of what was later called homosexuality before the 19th century, beyond medical texts identifying women with large clitorises as “tribades” and severe punishment codes for male homosexual acts. Early efforts to understand the range of human sexual behavior came from European doctors and scientists including Carl von Westphal (1869), Richard von Krafft-Ebing (1882) and Havelock Ellis (1897). Their writings were sympathetic to the concept of a homosexual or bisexual orientation occurring naturally in an identifiable segment of humankind, but the writings of Krafft-Ebing and Ellis also labeled a “third sex” degenerate and abnormal. Sigmund Freud, writing in the same era, did not consider homosexuality an illness or a crime and believed bisexuality to be an innate aspect beginning with undetermined gender development in the womb. Yet Freud also felt that lesbian desires were an immaturity women could overcome through heterosexual marriage and male dominance. These writings gradually trickled down to a curious public through magazines and presentations, reaching men and women desperate to learn more about those like themselves, including some like English writer Radclyffe Hall who willingly accepted the idea of being a “congenital invert.” German researcher Magnus Hirschfeld went on to gather a broader range of information by founding Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Science, Europe’s best library archive of materials on gay cultural history. His efforts, and Germany’s more liberal laws and thriving gay bar scene between the two World Wars, contrasted with the backlash, in England, against gay and lesbian writers such as Oscar Wilde and Radclyffe Hall. With the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich, however, the former tolerance demonstrated by Germany’s Scientific Humanitarian Committee vanished. Hirschfeld’s great library was destroyed and the books burnt by Nazis on May 10, 1933.

In the United States, there were few attempts to create advocacy groups supporting gay and lesbian relationships until after World War II. However, prewar gay life flourished in urban centers such as New York’s Greenwich Village and Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. The blues music of African-American women showcased varieties of lesbian desire, struggle and humor; these performances, along with male and female drag stars, introduced a gay underworld to straight patrons during Prohibition’s defiance of race and sex codes in speakeasy clubs. The disruptions of World War II allowed formerly isolated gay men and women to meet as soldiers and war workers; and other volunteers were uprooted from small towns and posted worldwide. Many minds were opened by wartime, during which LGBT people were both tolerated in military service and officially sentenced to death camps in the Holocaust. This increasing awareness of an existing and vulnerable population, coupled with Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s investigation of homosexuals holding government jobs during the early 1950s outraged writers and federal employees whose own lives were shown to be second-class under the law, including Frank Kameny, Barbara Gittings, Allen Ginsberg and Harry Hay. Awareness of a burgeoning civil rights movement (Martin Luther King’s key organizer Bayard Rustin was a gay man) led to the first American- based political demands for fair treatment of gays and lesbians in mental health, public policy and employment. Studies such as Alfred Kinsey’s 1947 Kinsey Report suggested a far greater range of homosexual identities and behaviors than previously understood, with Kinsey creating a “scale” or spectrum ranging from complete heterosexual to complete homosexual.

The primary organization for gay men as an oppressed cultural minority was the Mattachine Society, founded in 1950 by Harry Hay and Chuck Rowland. Other important homophile organizations on the West Coast included One, Inc., founded in 1952, and the first lesbian support network Daughters of Bilitis, founded in 1955 by Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin. Through meetings and publications, these groups offered information and outreach to thousands. These first organizations soon found support from prominent sociologists and psychologists. In 1951, Donald Webster Cory published „The Homosexual in America“, asserting that gay men and lesbians were a legitimate minority group, and in 1953 Evelyn Hooker, PhD, won a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health to study gay men. Her groundbreaking paper, presented in 1956, demonstrated that gay men were as well-adjusted as heterosexual men, often more so. But it would not be until 1973 that the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as an “illness” classification in its diagnostic manual. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, gay men and lesbians continued to be at risk for psychiatric lockup as well as jail, losing jobs, and/or child custody when courts and clinics defined gay love as sick, criminal or immoral.

In 1965, as the civil rights movement won new legislation outlawing racial discrimination, the first gay rights demonstrations took place in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., led by longtime activists Frank Kameny and Barbara Gittings. The turning point for gay liberation came on June 28, 1969, when patrons of the popular Stonewall Inn in New York’s Greenwich Village fought back against ongoing police raids of their neighborhood bar. Stonewall is still considered a watershed moment of gay pride and has been commemorated since the 1970s with “pride marches” held every June across the United States. Recent scholarship has called for better acknowledgement of the roles that drag performers, people of color, bisexuals and transgender patrons played in the Stonewall Riots.

The gay liberation movement of the 1970s saw myriad political organizations spring up, often at odds with one another. Frustrated with the male leadership of most gay liberation groups, lesbians influenced by the feminist movement of the 1970s formed their own collectives, record labels, music festivals, newspapers, bookstores, and publishing houses, and called for lesbian rights in mainstream feminist groups like the National Organization for Women (NOW). Gatherings such as women’s music concerts, bookstore readings and lesbian festivals well beyond the United States were extraordinarily successful in organizing women to become activists; the feminist movement against domestic violence also assisted women to leave abusive marriages, while retaining custody of children became a paramount issue for lesbian mothers.

Expanding religious acceptance for gay men and women of faith, the first out gay minister was ordained by the United Church of Christ in 1972. Other gay and lesbian church and synagogue congregations soon followed. Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), formed in 1972, offered family members greater support roles in the gay rights movement. And political action exploded through the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, the election of openly gay and lesbian representatives like Elaine Noble and Barney Frank, and, in 1979, the first march on Washington for gay rights. The increasing expansion of a global LGBT rights movement suffered a setback during the 1980s, as the gay male community was decimated by the AIDS epidemic, demands for compassion and medical funding led to renewed coalitions between men and women as well as angry street theatre by groups like AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and Queer Nation. Enormous marches on Washington drew as many as one million gay rights supporters in 1987 and again in 1993. Right wing religious movements, spurred on by beliefs that AIDS was God’s punishment, expanded via direct mail. A New Right coalition of political lobby groups competed with national LGBT organizations in Washington, seeking to create religious exemptions from any new LGBT rights protections. In the same era, one wing of the political gay movement called for an end to military expulsion of gay, lesbian and bisexual soldiers, with the high-profile case of Col. Margarethe Cammermeyer publicized through a made-for- television movie, “Serving in Silence.” In spite of the patriotism and service of gay men and lesbians in uniform, the uncomfortable and unjust compromise “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” emerged as an alternative to decades of military witch hunts and dishonorable discharges. Yet more service members ended up being discharged under DADT.

During in the last decade of the 20th century, millions of Americans watched as actress Ellen DeGeneres came out on national television in April 1997, heralding a new era of gay celebrity power and media visibility—although not without risks. Celebrity performers, both gay and heterosexual, continued to be among the most vocal activists calling for tolerance and equal rights. With greater media attention to gay and lesbian civil rights in the 1990s, trans and intersex voices began to gain space through works such as Kate Boernstein’s „Gender Outlaw“ (1994) and „My Gender Workbook“ (1998), Ann Fausto-Sterling’s „Myths of Gender“ (1992) and Leslie Feinberg’s Transgender Warriors (1998), enhancing shifts in women’s and gender studies to become more inclusive of transgender and nonbinary identities. As a result of hard work by countless organizations and individuals, helped by internet and direct-mail campaign networking, the 21st century heralded new legal gains for gay and lesbian couples. Same-sex civil unions were recognized under Vermont law in 2000 and Massachusetts became the first state to perform same-sex marriages in 2004; with the end of state sodomy laws (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003), gay and lesbian Americans were finally free from criminal classification. Gay marriage was first legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Canada; but the recognition of gay marriage by church and state continued to divide opinion worldwide. After the impressive gains for LGBT rights in post-apartheid South Africa, conservative evangelicals in the U.S. began providing support and funding for homophobic campaigns overseas. Uganda’s dramatic death penalty for gays and lesbians was perhaps the most severe in Africa.

The first part of the 21st century saw new emphasis on transgender activism and the increasing usage of terminology that questioned binary gender identification. Images of trans women became more prevalent in film and television, as did programming with same-sex couples raising children. Transphobia, cissexism and other language (such as “hir“ and “them”) became standardized, and film and television programming featured more openly trans youth and adult characters. Tensions between lesbian and trans activists, however, remained, with the long-running Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival boycotted by national LGBT groups over the issue of trans inclusion; like many woman-only events with a primarily lesbian base, Michfest had supported an ideal of ingathering women and girls born female. The festival ended after its fortieth anniversary in August 2015.

Internet activism burgeoned, while many of the public, physical gathering spaces that once defined LGBT activism (bars, bookstores, women’s music festivals) began to vanish, and the usage of “queer” replaced lesbian identification for many younger women activists. Attention shifted to global activism as U.S. gains were not matched by similar equal rights laws in the 75 other countries where homosexuality remained illegal. As of 2016, LGBT identification and activism was still punishable by death in ten countries: Iran, Iraq, Mauritania, Nigeria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda and Yemen; the plight of the LGBT community in Russia received intense focus during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, to which President Obama sent a contingent of out LGBT athletes. Supportive remarks from the new Pope Francis (“Who am I to judge?”) gave hope to LGBT Catholics worldwide.

Perhaps the greatest changes in the U.S. occurred between spring 2015 and spring 2016: in late spring 2015 Alison Bechdel’s lesbian-themed Broadway production Fun Home won several Tony awards, former Olympic champion Bruce Jenner transitioned to Caitlyn Jenner, and then in June of 2015, the Supreme Court decision recognized same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges). By spring 2016 the Academy Awards recognized films with both lesbian and transgender themes: Carol and The Danish Girl. And the Supreme Court had avowed that a lesbian family adoption in one state had to be recognized in all states. However, the United States also saw intense racial profiling confrontations and tragedies in this same period, turning LGBT activism to “intersectionality,” or recognition of intersections issues of race, class, gender identity and sexism. With the June 12 attacks on the Pulse Club in Orlando, that intersectionality was made plain as straight allies held vigils grieving the loss of young Latino drag queens and lesbians of color; with unanswered questions about the killer’s possible identification with ISIS terrorism, other voices now call for alliances between the LGBT and Muslim communities, and the greater recognition of perspectives from those who are both Muslim and LGBT in the U.S. and beyond. The possible repression of identity which may have played a role in the killer’s choice of target has generated new attention to the price of homophobia –internalized, or culturally expressed— in and beyond the United States.

History of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Social Movements

How Gay Culture Blossomed During the Roaring Twenties

On a Friday night in February 1926, a crowd of some 1,500 packed the Renaissance Casino in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood for the 58th masquerade and civil ball of Hamilton Lodge.

Nearly half of those attending the event, reported the New York Age, appeared to be “men of the class generally known as ‘fairies,’ and many Bohemians from the Greenwich Village section their gorgeous evening gowns, wigs and powdered faces were hard to distinguish from many of the women.”

The tradition of masquerade and civil balls, more commonly known as drag balls, had begun back in 1869 within Hamilton Lodge, a black fraternal organization in Harlem. By the mid-1920s, at the height of the Prohibition era, they were attracting as many as 7,000 people of various races and social classes—gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and straight alike.

Stonewall (1969) is often considered the beginning of forward progress in the gay rights movement. But more than 50 years earlier, Harlem’s famous drag balls were part of a flourishing, highly visible LGBTQ nightlife and culture that would be integrated into mainstream American life in a way that became unthinkable in later decades.

How Gay Culture Blossomed During the Roaring Twenties

Gay Men’s Obsession with Masculinity Is Hurting Their Mental Health

From the moment they leave the womb, men are indoctrinated with ideas about what their gender means. Real men don’t cry. They don’t ask for help. They don’t back down from a fight. Our culture inculcates masculinity in ways both subtle and overt, through schoolyard taunts and gendered bathrooms, at the gym as in the frat house.

The result of this relentless social conditioning is that every gay man inherits an identity crisis: They must reconcile their sense of masculinity with their failure to conform to its compulsory heterosexuality. While some resolve the conflict by eschewing gender norms altogether, a surprising number embrace the very rubric they fall short of, striving to embody cultural notions of masculinity in the way they speak, act, and dress. This is particularly true when it comes to dating.

“In the gay community, a sexual premium is placed on masculinity, which puts pressure on gay men to be masculine,” says Justin Lehmiller, a psychologist at the Kinsey Institute who studies human sexuality. “Feminine-acting men are seen as less desirable sexual partners.”

This is no news to anyone who has ever perused gay dating apps, where one often comes across men advertising themselves as “straight-acting” or “masc.” It’s as common to list the number of times you go to the gym per week as divulging your age. In one 2012 study about gay men’s attitudes toward masculinity, a majority of those surveyed said it was important not only for themselves to present as masculine, but for their partners to look and act masculine as well. Other studies have found that gay men are more attracted to masculine-looking faces and muscular builds. The more masculine one rates oneself, the greater importance he places on masculinity in his partner.

“If enough people tell you they’re only looking for masc men, you start to think there’s something wrong with you.”

While some may dismiss the reverence of masculinity among gay men as “just a preference,” it has documented negative effects on mental health. Gay men who are more gender-nonconforming struggle more frequently with self-esteem and experience higher levels of depression and anxiety. Those who prize masculinity are more likely to be dissatisfied with their bodies.

“A big part of the reason people in the LGBT community have more mental health issues is not only because they experience high levels of marginalization from society at large, but also because of the intense pressure to be, look, and act in a masculine way,” Lehmiller tells them.. “You have all of this social exclusion happening more broadly, but also within the queer community itself. We’re judging and excluding one another.”

Whether or not gay men intend to shun those who are less masculine than they are, if a critical mass of the community expresses a preference for masculinity, it creates a standard.

“Femme men can feel ostracized because of the pedestal we put masculinity on,” says John Ersing, a 28-year-old gay writer in New York City. “If enough people tell you they’re only looking for masc men, you start to think there’s something wrong with you.”

But gay culture’s obsession with masculinity hurts masculine and feminine men alike.

“Even gay men who subscribe to masculinity — and it may be genuine — feel a degree of uncertainty about whether they are masculine enough, how they are seen by others,” says Francisco Sánchez, a professor of psychology at the University of Missouri who studies gay men and masculinity and conducted the 2012 study. “There’s often a sense of inferiority.”

While such feelings are most common earlier in the coming-out stages, Sánchez notes that masculine norms continue to affect gay men’s sense of self long after they’ve told mom and dad.

“Many gay men want to fit in and be seen as normal, not different,” he says.

„You cannot exist in a world where you’re always armored,“ says Wizdom Powell, associate professor of psychiatry at The University of Connecticut. „It puts boys and men in this box that makes it very hard for them to get the help they need.”

The pressure to conform to male stereotypes doesn’t just harm gay men; it’s bad for all men. In August of last year, the American Psychological Association released a document titled “Guidelines for Psychological Practice with Men and Boys.” While the APA acknowledged that gender roles are largely socially constructed — science still knows very little about how biology affects gender — and masculine norms vary across cultures, “there is a particular constellation of standards that have held sway over large segments of the population, including: anti-femininity, achievement, eschewal of the appearance of weakness, and adventure, risk, and violence.” Thirteen years in the works, the document noted that rigid adherence to this traditional masculine ideology harms men’s mental and physical health, in part by discouraging them from expressing emotion and seeking treatment when they need it.

The guidelines prompted a fierce backlash from the right-wing media, which accused the APA of demonizing men. “Traditional masculinity seems to be, in this report at least, conflated with being a pig, or a creep, or a Harvey Weinstein kind of person,” intoned Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham. National Review’s David French called it a “full-frontal attack” on conservative values.

But Ryon McDermott, a professor of psychology at the University of South Alabama who helped draft the guidelines, says such criticisms missed the point, which was to help psychologists better treat men and boys. What conservative commentators failed to appreciate was that it was rigid and extreme forms of masculinity — rather than masculinity wholesale — that the APA had cautioned against.

“When you adhere to masculine norms in rigid ways, it stops you from adapting and coping with your environment,” McDermott says. “It leads to men not seeking help, self-medicating, committing suicide, abuse in relationships. It’s not the norms that are toxic, but the ways that people adhere to them.”

It may be tempting to dismiss all masculinities as bad. But Wizdom Powell, director of the Health Disparities Institute and associate professor of psychiatry at The University of Connecticut, stresses that even traits associated with traditional masculinity can be beneficial depending on the social context. Stoicism, for instance, can serve service-members well on the battlefield, but creates a barrier in overcoming PTSD.

“The important thing to remember is that masculinity is plural and situational — there’s more than one way men and boys enact masculinities in their daily lives,” says Powell, whose research focuses on the impact of gender norms and racism on black men. “But you cannot exist in a world where you’re always armored. It puts boys and men in this box that makes it very hard for them to get the help they need.”

Gay and straight alike, men who are more flexible in their adherence to masculine norms — those who can step in and out of the box — can better handle their environment.

“Research shows consistently that men who are more flexible in their gender roles tend to be healthier at nearly every level,” McDermott says.

“There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to masc guys, but the problem comes when you’re completely shutting yourself off to any other possibility,” says John Ersing. “You’re cockblocking yourself.”

The good news is that the strict binary between masculinity and femininity appears to be blurring. A majority of Millennials believe gender falls on a spectrum, according to Fusion’s Massive Millennial Pollsurvey from queer-rights organization GLAAD showed 12 percent of this generation identifies as gender non-conforming.

Justin Clay, a 23-year-old YouTuber based in Atlanta, has noticed greater acceptance of and experimentation with gender nonconformity since coming out in 2014. “As I’ve grown up, I’ve seen more people my own age exploring how they express themselves,” he says. “I feel like a lot of it is due to the work and organizing that queer people of color have done.”

Gay men know instinctually that that masculinity is fluid. Even the most straight-acting gay man can’t call everyone “bro” all the time. All gay men engage in code-switching, butching it up in a job interview but letting themselves queen out at the weekly Drag Race gathering. Much of this variation in behavior stems from a desire to avoid negative social repercussions from society at large, but gay men also tend to put on their straight face to be more appealing to other gay men.

And yet some in the gay community — particularly those who express a preference for butch types — are reluctant to acknowledge that attraction to masculinity is as variable as masculinity itself.

“Dating apps make it easy to enforce gender boundaries, but in reality, desire is messy, complicated, and surprising,” says Jake Hall, a Ph.D. student in gender and sexuality at the University of Birmingham who identifies as femme. “Even if you have a preference for masculine men, you’d be surprised who you end up being attracted to. You can recondition your mind.”

As young people push the boundaries of gender, an increasing number of gay men feel comfortable questioning gay culture’s idolization of traditional masculinity — and the notion that desire is bound by it.

“There’s nothing wrong with being attracted to masc guy, but the problem comes when you’re completely shutting yourself off to any other possibility,” Ersing says. “You’re cockblocking yourself.”

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The Beginnings of a New Gay World

“In the late 19th century, there was an increasingly visible presence of gender-non-conforming men who were engaged in sexual relationships with other men in major American cities,” says Chad Heap, a professor of American Studies at George Washington University and the author of Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940.

In addition to these groups, whom social reformers in the early 1900s would call “male sex perverts,” a number of nightclubs and theaters were featuring stage performances by female impersonators; these spots were mainly located in the Levee District on Chicago’s South Side, the Bowery in New York City and other largely working-class neighborhoods in American cities.

By the 1920s, gay men had established a presence in Harlem and the bohemian mecca of Greenwich Village (as well as the seedier environs of Times Square), and the city’s first lesbian enclaves had appeared in Harlem and the Village. Each gay enclave, wrote George Chauncey in his book Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, had a different class and ethnic character, cultural style and public reputation.

A 1927 illustration of three transgender women and a man dancing at a nightclub.

Gay Life in the Jazz Age

As the United States entered an era of unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in the years after World War Iflapper, with her short hair, figure-skimming dresses and ever-present cigarette and cocktail, would become the most recognizable symbol of the Roaring Twenties, her fame spreading via the new mass media born during that decade. But the ‘20s also saw the flourishing of LGBTQ nightlife and culture that reached beyond the cities, across the country, and into ordinary American homes.

Though New York City may have been the epicenter of the so-called „Pansy Craze,“ gay, lesbian and transgender performers graced the stages of nightspots in cities all over the country. Their audiences included many straight men and women eager to experience the culture themselves (and enjoy a good party) as well as ordinary LGBTQ Americans seeking to expand their social networks or find romantic or sexual partners.

“It gave them many more possible places they could go to meet other people like themselves,” Heap says of the Pansy Craze and accompanying lesbian or Sapphic craze, of the ‘20s and early to mid-‘30s. “At its height, when many ordinary heterosexual men and women were going to venues that featured queer entertainment, it probably also provided useful cover for queer men and women to go to the same venues.”

At the same time, lesbian and gay characters were being featured in a slew of popular “pulp” novels, in songs and on Broadway stages (including the controversial 1926 play The Captive) and in Hollywood—at least prior to 1934, when the motion picture industry began enforcing censorship guidelines, known as the Hays Code. Heap cites Clara Bow’s 1932 film Call Her Savagein which a short scene features a pair of “campy male entertainers” in a Greenwich Village-like nightspot. On the radio, songs including „Masculine Women, Feminine Men“ and „Let’s All Be Fairies“ were popular.

The fame of LGBTQ nightlife and culture during this period was certainly not limited to urban populations. Stories about drag balls or other performances were sometimes picked up by wire services, or even broadcast over local radio. “You can find them in certain newspaper coverage in unexpected places,” Heap says.

A cross-dresser being taken away in a police van for dressing like a woman, circa 1939. 

“Pansy Craze” Comes to an End

With the end of Prohibition, the onset of the Depression and the coming of As Chauncey writes, a backlash began in the 1930s, as “part of a wider Depression-era condemnation of the cultural experimentation of the 20’s, which many blamed for the economic collapse.”

The sale of liquor was legal again, but newly enforced laws and regulations prohibited restaurants and bars from hiring gay employees or even serving gay patrons. In the mid- to late ‘30s, Heap points out, a wave of sensationalized sex crimes “provoked hysteria about sex criminals, who were often—in the mind of the public and in the mind of authorities—equated with gay men.” 

This not only discouraged gay men from participating in public life, but also “made homosexuality seem more dangerous to the average American.”

READ MORE: How the Great Depression Helped End ProhibitioBy the post-World War II era, a larger cultural shift toward earlier marriage and suburban living, the advent of TV and the anti-homosexuality crusades championed by Joseph McCarthy would help push the flowering of gay culture represented by the Pansy Craze firmly into the nation’s rear-view mirror. 

Drag balls, and the spirit of freedom and exuberance they represented, never went away entirely—but it would be decades before LGBTQ life would flourish so publicly again. 

Sarah Pruitt is a writer and editor based in seacoast New Hampshire. She has been a frequent contributor to since 2005, and is the author of Breaking History: Vanished! (Lyons Press, 2017), which chronicles some of history’s most famous disappearances.

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