National Commentary

Nick Benton’s Gay Science No. 88: We Are Best Defined By Our Creative Work

The events surrounding and subsequent to the modern gay movement-founding Stonewall Riots of June 1969 are relevant to our cause today. It’s not just ancient history.

First was the spectacular context that gave rise to the modern movement, a by-product of the greatest surge of popular passion for civil rights, justice and an end to a senseless war in the history of the U.S.

Second was the rapid devolution of that idealism and activism into an excessively self-centered urban anarcho-hedonism in the early 1970s creating the preconditions for the AIDS crisis and, most tragically, involving an abandonment by hundreds of thousands of gays of their creative work.

The creative energy that powered the first-ever successful effort by the people to actually stop a war was, by the socially-engineered “tune in, turn on, drop out” so-called “counterculture,” deflated into a selfish, habitual obsession with sensual delights that involved dropping the pursuit of creative work.

In the San Francisco gay ghetto, the social pressure was to quit work and go on welfare, as “Castro clones” spent days on street corners in conformist lumberjack dress and nights at the baths. This was how it went down for Ken Horne, who I wrote about earlier in this series, the first known person to die from AIDS. He’d come to San Francisco seeking a career in ballet, but got caught in the “scene,” soon abandoning his dream to take a menial job so he could maximize his time cruising for sex.

I felt the pressure acutely, as my gay liberation colleagues pressured me to quit my job as a reporter for the Berkeley Barb and go on “aid to the totally dependent.” I didn’t.

Ironically, post-Stonewall gay liberation transformed gays from valuing themselves primarily for their creative ability to impact the wider culture, even if it had to be done from the closet, into mind-numbed sex addicts.

Previously marginalized institutions of increasingly graphic pornography, seamy bars, disco clubs, bathhouses, S and M torture chambers, and countless opportunities for anonymous, impersonal sex came to define the gay culture and lifestyle.

Later, gradually recovering from the AIDS horror and the loss of 400,000 beautiful human lives between and 1981-1996, our gay culture suffered an acute post-traumatic stress syndrome of denial and conformist and non-conformist extremism. (Typically, writing his “coming out” book, “The Confession,” in 2006, former New Jersey governor James McGreevey talked about life in the closet as a “divided self,” but made no mention of AIDS even as it was obviously swirling all around him during his many dangerous forays into anonymous sex.)

But last year’s highly-acclaimed revival of “The Normal Heart,” Larry Kramer’s gripping 1984 play about the horrible early days of AIDS, has signaled a shift. A smash on Broadway last summer, winning Tony Awards and now opening in Washington, D.C., it is the first really hard look at AIDS that our wider community has been willing to face up to since the whole thing broke out.

A new opportunity exists to revisit the assumptions of our current gay culture, especially the components carried forward from the pre-AIDS culture of the 1970s.

While no one is advocating a repudiation of all erotic features of our culture, the move toward institutionalizing stable and loyal gay relationships through marriage is a positive impulse toward something more substantial and humanizing.

On the other hand, “queer theory” advocates an escalation of non-conformity, pursuing ever more exotic and bizarre pursuits of perceived pleasure and anti-authoritarianism, trying to establish these as authentic for the future of our culture.

But the debate about gay culture as “assimilationist versus anti-assimilationist” is wrong on both sides.

In the courageous struggle for full equality, gay marriage is now the cutting edge. But the issue is one of full equality, not whether or not marriage is the right thing for everybody.

Who wants to merely assimilate into our present militaristic and testosterone-saturated culture? Marriage doesn’t imply assimilation as long as we stay true to our gay nature, which to the core is resistant to the cruel and dehumanizing currents of the dominant culture.

The defining characteristics of gay identity – gay sensibility, an alternate sensual perspective and constructive non-conformity – form the basis of the transformative role our tribe is assigned to play in the evolution of our wider culture. Our job is to engage and transform society, as we always have.

Wars will never save humanity. Humanity will prosper and advance in peace only by the work that we gays and our allies do.

Our own salvation is in our creativity and our work, too. Tennessee Williams knew this. As hard as he partied at night, he was always in his studio to write for hours every morning. His work was his life, it was the core of his gay identity.

Gay culture in the future shall be built around creativity and the unique contributions we bring to forging a better world.

To be continued.