Almost all the gay-authored literature describing the Stonewall era through the end of the AIDS “automatic death sentence” era, from 1969 to 1996 – including compelling writing by the Violet Quill circle of notable gay-themed novelists including Edmund White and Andrew Holleran – presents an overwhelming sense of inevitability.
Lone exceptions among prominent gay figures are playwright/activist Larry Kramer and the late San Francisco Chronicle reporter Randy Shilts (“And the Band Played On”). But even they only alluded to, at best, rather than critically examined the larger social forces that shaped post-Stonewall gay culture, that steered it and reinforced it in the direction of the astonishing radical hedonism in the 1970s, creating the context for AIDS and 400,000 deaths of mostly male homosexuals in the U.S. to date (and, of course, countless more worldwide).
So, my “Gay Science” series over recent months has been pioneering. It is presented not as definitive or the final word, but as a starting point to a fresh examination of not only what happened then, based on, among other things, my journalistic eyewitness leading up to and following Stonewall, but of the “what, why and how” of trends that continue to drive gay culture at its core today.
Dominant gay culture remains defined in that core by circuit parties, recreational drugs, mindless worship of the physical properties of certain endowed young men, boring pornography, sexual excess, the constant abuse of the emotive impulse to love by resort to casual and anonymous sex, outlandish allegedly-sexual extreme behaviors (such as “erotic vomiting,” described in glowing terms in a twisted “queer theory” textbook), and the abiding popularity of Manhunt, Grindr and other casual sex hook-up sites.
These features are so mainstream in gay culture today it seems hopeless, an invitation to derision, to call them into question. No wonder the yearning for something akin to normalcy among so many gays, seeking it through marriage and other institutions that parrot the even more morally-bankrupt straight society that either still hates or will never really be comfortable with them.
Kramer’s character Ned Weeks in his Tony Award-winning “The Normal Heart” cries out as the reality of the AIDS epidemic unfolds, “I belong to a culture that includes Proust, Henry James, Tchaikovsky, Cole Porter, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Leonardo di Vinci, Christopher Marlowe, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, Tennessee Williams, Byron, E.M. Forster, Lorca, Auden, Francis Bacon, James Baldwin, Harry Stack Sullivan, John Maynard Keynes, Dag Hammarskjold…The only way we’ll have real pride is when we demand recognition of a culture that isn’t just sexual. It’s all there – all through history we’ve been there; but we have to claim it, and identify who was in it, and articulate what’s in our minds and hearts and all our creative contributions to this earth…That’s how I want to be defined: as one of the men who fought the war. Being defined by our cocks is literally killing us. Must we all be reduced to becoming our own murderers?”
That has been Larry Kramer’s abiding theme.
To my mind, such a noble and heroic breed are homosexuals! We’ve been an indispensable glue and momentum for the maintenance and advance not only of civilization, but of civility, itself. Nature has put us here for a reason.
Strip us of our rightful role, replace a zeal to create and contribute to a more just and compassionate world, reduce us to “blithe indifference,” and the entire world becomes angrier, more paranoid, more selfish and cruel.
Assess the wider social impact of 80,000 of the most creative souls in the world, who found their way to New York, the creative capital of the globe, to make their contribution, wiped out by AIDS, most long before they’d come close to achieving their full potential.
How would the world be different today had that not happened? Would the outcome of the razor-thin 2000 presidential election in the U.S. (considered by many the most significant watershed for all the chaos that’s followed) been the same? You can’t remove that many homosexuals without making the world a less cheery place.
For too many who survived, the cynicism and indifference imbued into gay culture in the 1970s, and the unaddressed “post-traumatic stress” consequences of the AIDS era, turned them them away from humanitarian ideals, to parrot their straight oppressors as harsh individualist libertarians, anarchists and jaded arch-conservatives.
Gay people will never “fit” in straight society. Nature provided us to transform it, not conform to it. We’re meant to be neither the mindless hedonists of the urban gay culture of the 1970s, nor new Ozzie and Harriets. Nobody said this would be easy. It isn’t.
But we can speak to each other from the vantage point of, as Abraham Lincoln (one of us) put it, “the better angels of our nature,” to love not lust, to urge one another to tackle fears and become important to the mending of an increasingly dysfunctional world.