Robert Reynolds reviews: The End of Gay (and the death of heterosexuality) by Bert Archer, Homocons: The Rise of the Gay Right by Richard Goldstein, and Beyond the Closet: The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life by Steven Seidman.
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This review was originally published in the Australian Journal of American Studies 23:2, December 2004, and is reprinted here with permission.
Queer mythology has it that the gay rights movement began on a steamy 1969 June night in Greenwich Village. Mourning the death of camp icon Judy Garland, and provoked by yet another police raid, the patrons of a Christopher Street dance bar took issue with their maltreatment and fought back. The dispute widened, fell into the streets, and over several nights of conflict, the Stonewall Riots raged.
It’s an evocative story and one with considerable political symbolism. No matter that a generation of post-Stonewall historians have convincingly laid bare a more complex genealogy of homosexual resistance and identity formation. Today, were you to ask your average homosexual citizen in New York (or Sydney for that matter) where modern gay life began, I suspect the answer would be, more often that not, at Stonewall.
So perhaps it is appropriate that calls for the official passing of gay life have begun seeping out from the lower West Side. This “post-gay” phenomenon, as it has come to be known, has a lineage all of its own, entering into gay discourse sometime in the mid 1990s. A decade earlier, Dennis Altman had prefigured aspects of the post-gay with his observation that in the sphere of sexual relations, heterosexual America was undergoing a ‘homosexualization’. The title of Altman’s 1981 book, The Homosexualization of America, The Americanization of the Homosexual snappily encapsulated his argument that a decade after Stonewall the lines between heterosexuality and homosexuality were blurring.1 The AIDS crisis intervened to sharpen the minority status of American homosexuals, but by the mid 1990s, with gay deaths from HIV falling and the wider cultural AIDS panic ebbing, the concept of a less specific and separate gay life re-emerged. Even the august pages of The New York Times, a broadsheet once reluctant to print the word “gay”, noted there was change afoot. Under the heading ‘New Way of Being’, an article coinciding with the 29 th anniversary of Stonewall mooted the post-gay as ‘a fledgling, somewhat murky idea that describes a homosexual identity in which sexual behaviour no longer defines one’s life. It’s not bisexuality. It’s not retreating to the closet. It is a way of saying, “We’ve come a long way, so calm down” ‘.2
In 2004, such an up-beat assessment seems overly optimistic, Clintonesque almost. The Bush Administration’s attempt to deploy gay marriage as a re-election tool belies the sunny assertion that, ‘In a post-gay world, homosexuals have won their battle for acceptance, and are now free to move beyond identity politics.’3 Nonetheless, sightings of a post-gay life continue. In reviewing a gay Off-Broadway play, The Last Sunday in June, writer David Kauffman recently detected a distinctly post-gay Zeitgeist. The play’s lead characters explicitly ponder the question of whether they are post-gay. Tellingly, Kauffman relates one exchange over the usefulness of gay identity politics. When one character pronounces upon ‘”the duty to fight until we are truly recognized in the culture,”‘ another responds, ‘”Are you serious? We’re already overexposed. The culture’s learned everything from us. The war’s over. We won.”‘4 If this is a sentiment that Kauffman, himself a recipient of a prestigious gay literary award, can’t quite embrace, it is one that he recognises. In fact, in his review, Kauffman draws on Bert Archer’s The End of Gay (and the death of heterosexuality) to muse that gay liberation ‘has reached a turning point, if not exactly a moment of closure’.5
The three books reviewed here agree with Kauffman that gay life has reached a turning point. But where they differ is the assessment of that transformation as well as their evaluation of the dangers and opportunities that come with change. Shadowing these accounts is the question of politics. Are homosexual identity politics still necessary, and, if so, what form should they take? Hovering in the margins, like a dinner guest not sure of her welcome or place, is the specific issue of gay marriage.
Bert Archer is a young, university-educated journalist who lives and writes in Toronto. His sassy manifesto, The End of Gay (and the death of heterosexuality) was first published in Canada in 1999 (and then updated and republished internationally in 2002). It made something of a stir, winning Archer a public profile as the spokesperson of post-gay life as well as the wrath of some Canadian gay and lesbian activists.6 No matter, for though Archer may be a Toronto resident his gaze is fixed firmly south of the border on the rise and fall of the Stonewall generation. There is the occasional glance across the Atlantic, but not enough to engage with Alan Sinfield’s recent analysis of metropolitan gay identities and post-gay sensibilities.7 This is a pity, for Sussex based Professor Sinfield is a deft theorist of popular culture and social change. I might say that this omission of Sinfield (apart from a citation in Archer’s Further Reading) is in keeping with the irreverent tone of The End of Gay. Archer is not especially respectful of his elders, particularly those who insist on inhabiting a gay or lesbian subject position. Of the three authors reviewed here, it is Archer who wishes to wave the era of gay away. He concludes his book with a call to ‘our martial elders before they fade away into the mists of reverend heroism. They must free succeeding generations from the chains they took up to pull us into the modern age.’ (p. 233)
Reading Archer, it is hard not to respond in kind to his swaggering tone and to suggest that his own analysis of sexual modernity is overly narcissistic. Certainly, Archer makes no bones about surmising the death of gay from his personal experiences. ‘Gay ended for me,’ he begins, ‘on a late afternoon in March 1991 in a men’s residence in a small Catholic college in Toronto.’ (p. 7) As he tells it, Archer and four of his fellow students were sitting in a common room discussing Madonna’s video clip, ‘Justify my love’. Replete with images of bisexual chic, the video prompted three of his sturdy Italian-Canadian classmates to contemplate the possibility of a same-sex encounter. As Vince, Archer’s favourite puts it: ‘”Y’know, I could see myself doin’ a guy. I mean, I’m not a fag or nuthin’, but y’know, if I was totally horned up, sure.”‘ (p. 8) Archer is closeted at the time, so deeply embedded in the discourse of homosexual identity that he can only read Vince’s desire as a confession of homosexuality. ‘When I realised it wasn’t some sort of entrapment ploy to flush me out (a constant concern of mine at the time), my first thought was, “Whoa, Vince is like this total closet case.”‘ (p. 8)
It’s some years before Archer can reach back and reinterpret that conversation as an expression of sexual fluidity rather than identity. Nevertheless, that afternoon marks the beginning of Archer’s personal and intellectual deconstruction of sexual identity, homosexual and heterosexual. In the interim Archer finds a boyfriend and then loses a boyfriend; goes through a stridently queer activist phase to shore up his identity as a single gay man; and has a casual sexual relationship with a heterosexual man who ‘didn’t want to get swirled into a pre-set world of In and Out, Gay, Bi and Straight, in which every sexual act is seen as a denial or affirmation of identity.’ (p. 17) In an inversion of the coming out narrative, Archer then finds himself involved with a woman. It doesn’t last, partly because Archer can’t equate the relationship with his self-identity as a gay man. Something has to give, and for Archer that is the established categories of gender and sexuality. ‘What had struck me fully formed and in a flash was that it doesn’t matter. Girl, boy – it just doesn’t matter.’ (pp. 18-19) With this revelation, Archer sets out on a road journey through North America, both real and virtual, to research the withering away of sexual identity. Eschewing formal interviews and sociological sampling, Archer chats, analyses and sleeps his way around a polymorphous perverse continent. His book, he declares, offers ‘introspection rather than providing definitive exposition.’ (p.2)
Moving into the often self-reflexive field of sexuality studies, Archer can hardly be faulted for highlighting the autobiographical impulse of his research. One of the earliest texts of gay and lesbian studies, Altman’s Homosexual: Oppression and Liberation came out of that author’s involvement in the early days of New York gay liberation. And like Altman’s Homosexual, although less rigorously, Archer is convinced that his personal experiences signal wider changes in sexual culture, particularly within his generation and younger. Whilst conceding that ‘it’s by no means a universal, or even remarkably common, thing for teens and young adults to completely ignore sexual identity and follow less walled-off paths of attraction and relationships’ (p. 204), Archer is adamant that this is the future of sexual relations, a future already underway. He finds his evidence in the vectors of youth culture – films, television, music videos and the internet. Net chat, with its dissembling of bodily identities, has ‘the very real power to be the great identity crusher.’ (p. 167) Hollywood films like Chasing Amy prefigure the wearing away of sexual identity, as do moments in the situation comedies, Friends, Roseanne, The Drew Carey Show, and the teenage drama, Dawson’s Creek. Contentiously, Archer argues that it is popular representations of heterosexuality, not homosexuality, which are dissolving more easily. He takes the example of Joey in Friends, seemingly ‘the most ardent heterosexual on the show’, who on closer inspection is ‘simply the show’s most sexual character, no prefix required.’ (p. 171) Conversely, Archer excoriates the fixed homosexual identities of ‘gay TV’ (p. 170), citing Will and Grace, the ill-fated Ellen, and Queer as Folk, the latter dismissed as ‘little more than an especially well-written gay soap opera.’ (p. 175)
There is no doubt that Archer is onto something in his analysis of American popular culture. But while gay characters are too often paraded as Gay Characters, and there has been some playing with heterosexuality, Archer doesn’t entertain how historically these two trends may be related. He maintains that it is the calcification of identity boundaries over the past few generations which prevent a character like Joey from exploring what happens between men when friends become lovers (p. 171). In this reading, the emergence of a culturally legitimate homosexual category is overwhelmingly repressive for it reproduces ‘the myth of one’s impotence to follow pleasures and relationships across boundaries.’ (p. 172) Perhaps, but I’m inclined to temper this idealism with another reading of our sexual moment. It may be the certainty that Joey is not gay that partly enables his sensual play. Put historically, the cultural visibility of post-Stonewall homosexuality may have both sharpened and frayed American heterosexuality, with contradictory effects.
Archer’s narrative of sexual modernity struggles to find a place for such contradictions. It may be true that the category gay is ‘after certain victories have been won, inherently more confining than liberating.’ (p. 230) But in arriving so comfortably at this conclusion, Archer has flattened out a history of homosexual identity and robbed contemporary gay life of its complexity. I don’t disagree with Archer’s critique of certain gay identity story-telling which recount individual homosexual life histories as a teleological march to an all encompassing and coherent Gay Identity.8 It is important to understand the costs (and benefits) of basing a life, community and politics around the trope of innate and immutable sexual identities. There are political dangers in an over-reification of sexual identity, as Seidman points out in his study. But to compare thirty-five years of the making and remaking of American gay life to ‘Maoist identity reconstruction’ (p. 181), is, well, a little Maoist. It ignores the complex ways people inhabit identity categories, even those most unabashed proponents of gay life that strut the streets of Chelsea, West Hollywood and Darlinghurst.
Archer’s contention is that gay got stuck in the early 1990s, 1994 to be exact. Having survived the crisis of HIV/AIDS and won mainstream visibility, gays were determined to enjoy the fruits of acceptance. There they have remained, stalled in a groundhog day of marches, neighborhood ghettos, gay studies, and limited libidinal imagination. Nineteen-ninety-four, Archer argues, was ‘the year it became clear gay was not going to accept its successes and continue moving forward, the year it became clear that it preferred to accept its successes and dig in its heels. It was the year gay got scared straight.’ (p. 170) Conversely, Archer urges courage – the courage to relinquish identity categories; the courage to abandon the self to the ‘true, difficult, and ultimately antisocial nature of pleasure.’ (p. 157) So it is pleasure, not identity, that we should follow, and here Archer marshals a mélange of Darwin, Freud and Kinsey to convince us of the power of pleasure. But Archer’s antisocial pleasures exist outside of history, which leaves me wondering how historically individuals might constitute themselves through and with pleasure. And what of politics? While critical of ‘gay watchdog agencies’ (p.174) for patrolling the borders of identity (and not without good reason – the American Gay and Lesbian Movement can be overbearing), the best Archer can offer is ‘a space opening up to get through the politics and into the pleasure.’ (p. 207) We are meant, I think, to take Archer on his apolitical word, for he has tasted the new world of liberated bodies and returned to write the travelogue.
One gay activist unlikely to embrace this account wholeheartedly is New York writer Richard Goldstein. As Archer describes his elders, Goldstein comes from ‘the generations of warrior lesbians and gay men’ who are reluctant ‘to take off their armour of identity and settle into the sexual freedom and unity they’ve won for us through brutish and sometimes brutal expression of sexual division.’ (p. 232) For his part, Goldstein is decidedly ambivalent about ‘the late 1990s ideology known as post-gay.’ (p. 50) He acknowledges ‘a radical potential’ in ‘the idea of sexual mutability’ (p. 50), especially as it has been articulated by queer theorists. A practiced dissident, Goldstein is sympathetic to ‘fighting the oppression of categories’ (p. 50), but sceptical about the lack of collective vision in much post-gay thought. What concerns Goldstein is the convergence of post-gay thought with a conservative politics. Both wish to declare the project of gay liberation substantially over. He quotes the declaration of one New York gay magazine editor, ‘”We no longer see our lives solely in terms of struggle”‘ (p. 51), as an example of this troubling intersection. The post-gay phenomenon, Goldstein concludes, ‘served as a trial run for the gay right.’ (p. 51)
To be fair, Archer is no conservative, for he falls on the radical side of post-gay thought. In fact, Archer dismisses queer as a ‘sloppy signifier’, preferring instead to ‘go directly to the signified.’ (p. 209) But in his blithe disregard of identity politics Archer may well have vacated the field to the right. Clearly, Archer shares the gay right’s disdain for established gay politics, which in America has leant to the left. But this is changing, with the emergence of right-leaning commentators like Andrew Sullivan and Norah Vincent. Neither confines themselves to gay and lesbian issues or presses. English born Sullivan, formerly the editor of The New Republic, is a regular opinion writer in The New York Times and a firm supporter of American intervention in Iraq.9 When Sullivan and Vincent do train their sights on gay and lesbian issues, it is often to criticise the leftist bias of identity politics. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Vincent outlined the difference between her fellow gay conservatives and gay liberals, ‘They want society to come to them or, better yet, succumb to them; we want society to meet us halfway. They see themselves as guerillas; we, by contrast, see ourselves as ambassadors.’10 Sullivan has been equally critical of those he terms ‘Washington’s gay elite’.11 Like the right more generally, Sullivan and Vincent have had the knack of decrying the concept of ‘victim politics’ whilst vigorously claiming the status of underdog in the ‘culture wars’ (a war they now claim to have won).
It is the growing appeal and influence of conservative gay commentators like Sullivan, Vincent, and maverick academic Camille Paglia that Goldstein sets out to exhibit and explain in his collection of essays, Homocons: The Rise of the Gay Right. First published as The Attack Queers in 2002, and then republished with a short after word the following year, Homocons comes with the endorsement of queer studies luminaries Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Michael Warner. These theorists are exactly the type of people Sullivan has derisively termed ‘the smart left’, accusing them of speaking ‘an academic jargon designed to shut itself off from mainstream debate and enforce its view in its enclaves by naked power.’12 Goldstein isn’t an academic, rather a fluent essayist (much like Sullivan) and executive editor of the The Village Voice, but no doubt, he is tainted by association.
For his part, Goldstein does not spare the gay right. Sullivan is ‘not a systematic thinker,’ nor is he ‘particularly original.’ (p. 9) He prefers to ‘rail at the left from the safety of his website than to subject his ideas to scrutiny.’ (p. 10) Nor does Goldstein stop at the intellectual: ‘Think of Rush Limbaugh with monster pecs, and you’ve got Andrew Sullivan.’ (p.17) As for Paglia, put aside her scholarship, her ‘major accomplishment is her persona, a retro blend of fire, ice, and cruelty in the service of power.’ (p. 60) Despite the efforts of Sullivan and Vincent to market themselves as common sense centrists, Goldstein perceives a more sinister development: ‘It’s not just political ideology that defines your place on the spectrum; it’s how you stand on issues such as sexual freedom, mainstreaming, and gender equity. By this measure, it is quite accurate to describe writers like Paglia, Sullivan, and Vincent as the gay auxiliary of the backlash against feminism and identity politics. They may aptly be called homocons.’ (p. 85)
What form does this backlash take and what is its history? As Goldstein casts them, the gay right wishes to downplay the distinctiveness of gay life. They are the latest wave of assimilationists, this time with powerful friends. Their catchcry is that homosexuals are virtually normal, or could be, were it not for the distortions of history. Oppression is best combated through the absence of government regulation, both discriminatory and affirmative. Imagining homosexuality to be virtually indistinguishable from heterosexuality, they are uncomfortable with the idea of specific laws to protect homosexuals and disdainful of nurturing specific queer cultures. Monogamous sexuality is upheld as the ideal, with marriage the peak of intimacy. In contrast to the queer privileging of gender and sexual diversity, ‘theirs is a single, morally correct way to be gay.’ (p. 13) Goldstein concedes that Paglia does not quite fit this group, but places her on the gay right ‘because of her devotion to masculine, which I regard as the central tenet of social conservatism.’13 As with the title of a 1993 book, A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society, all gay conservatives’ desire is their rightful place at the American feast – and they are more than happy to arrive well-dressed.14 In a wide historical sweep, Goldstein draws a parallel between the assimilationist ambitions of the nineteenth century Hebrew gentleman, ‘who could be identified by his surname but not (if he could help it) his manners,’ and the recent emergence of the homosexual gentleman – ‘out and proud, but not obvious.’ (p. 43)
More than an exposé of the gay right, Homcons critiques the relationship between mainstream American liberals and gay conservatives. Goldstein argues that beneath straight liberals’ support of gay rights lie deep anxieties and fears about homosexuality: ‘The differences that define us seems contagious, especially to those who have invested a great deal of energy in managing their desires, and the very fact that the sexual line can be crossed marks our acceptance with a special anxiety. Yet the liberal’s self-image requires that such fear and loathing be denied.’ (p. 4) Into this unarticulated space has moved the gay right. Their criticism of identity politics and policing of the transgressive aspects of gay life gels with the politically incorrect liberal unconscious. For Goldstein, this explains why the homocons have done so well in the liberal press. Liberals get to watch Sullivan, Vincent and Paglia ‘claw-hammer’ (p. 7) other gays whilst maintaining clean hands and an easy conscience. But the ‘attack queers’, as Goldstein calls them; fill more than a psychological function for American liberals. Politically, the assimilationist drive of gay conservatives fits with ‘the bedrock principle of liberalism: that all people are fundamentally the same.’ (p. 29) Goldstein suggests that in the face of a distinct queer sensibility, straight liberals prefer the project of assimilation. His explanation is blunt: ‘Liberals fear for their place in the world true pluralism would create.’ (p. 29) For Goldstein, ‘the heart of this alliance is the contempt straight liberals and homocons share for the idea that queers are distinct people with their own values, practices, and identities.’ (p. 53)
In contrast, Homocons is a passionate statement and defence of the distinctiveness of queer life and people. Goldstein sketches the origins of a queer culture and community, emerging from a history of marginalisation and spawning a distinct sensibility he calls ‘queer humanism’ (p. 92). He cites Walt Whitman’s observation that the greatest lesson to be learnt from nature is that of variety and freedom, and argues that this lesson is ‘the essence of queer humanism, and it remains the ethos of the queer community.’ (p. 93) Moreover, this queer ethos is tied to the left, for it sprang from ‘the marriage between bohemianism and socialism more than a century ago.’ (p. 91) Goldstein laments that this history is being lost, enabling the gay right to attack notions of queer community and progressive alliances. This new gay politics, cut free from its leftist origins, is especially appealing to white, middle-class gay men. It provides the hope – falsely, Goldstein argues – that they may reclaim their lost entitlements as white American men. Against Pat Buchanan, who predicted AIDS would obliterate gay life, Goldstein poses ‘a more plausible possibility: fragmentation as an unintended consequence of success.’ (p. 102)
Goldstein’s aim is to rebut this fragmentation through the rehabilitation and cultivation of queer tradition. Where gay conservatives state the case for a homosexual who must make her/his own way in the world, Goldstein advances the negative effects which would result from ‘the individuation of our social life’, including a return to the ‘bitchiness’ and ‘traditional hierarchies’ of pre-Stonewall life (p. 27). To combat the ‘individuating model’ (p. xi) of the gay right, he returns to a queer tradition of individuality as ‘the determination to be the person you always wanted to be.’ (p. 12) But this tradition can be lost, he warns, and American gay life is delicately balanced between the progressive politics of queer humanism and the punitive blandness of the gay right. Which way will gay life fall? Like any good radical, Goldstein concludes with an exhortation: ‘Fight the right or wait and see.’ (p. 108)
Goldstein’s call to arms is persuasive, as is his manifesto for a gay politics which combines the goals and energies of radicals and aspirational strivers (p. 105). Still, I wonder if he overstates the power of tradition in an increasingly post-traditional world, thereby narrowing the political possibilities which may yet emerge. He writes that if ‘the queer community is to survive in its current form, it must face the coming identity crisis.’ (p. 104) But what if new forms of queer being and belonging evolve through this crisis? Will they necessarily fit into existing communities and political formulations, including the left-right divide? For homosexual life already has a tradition of remaking the political, although perhaps this tradition, too, will wane. Without endorsing Archer’s self-assured idealism, his contention that love and sex is ‘probably best handled by people on a different plane, or better yet, by individuals on an individual, anecdotal level’ (p. 143), has the ring of post-modern truth. Talk of tradition may not adequately speak to such demanding individualism. Too easily dismissed as nostalgia, Goldstein’s valuable insights on the homosexual self and society might be lost.15
Like Archer and Goldstein, sociologist Steven Seidman discerns a significant shift in the structure of American gay life. Indeed, he begins Beyond the Closet: The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life with the assertion that ‘there is little disagreement that gay life in America is changing.’ (p. 2) With a keen eye to history and social theory, and well published in both fields, Seidman brings substantial range and depth to his survey of contemporary homosexualities. His appreciation of how institutional practices and structures mould sexuality is a useful corrective to Archer’s enamoured tracing of popular culture. Not that Seidman ignores cultural representations of homosexuality. In fact, in an analysis of the changing patterns of heterosexual dominance, Seidman devotes his longest chapter to Hollywood representations of homosexuality since 1960. Whereas Archer plucks out films to bolster his end of gay thesis, Seidman is more attentive to historical context, as well as the political effects of change. Counter intuitively, Seidman suggests that the films of the early 1960s were gentler in their characterisation of homosexuals than the 1970s and 1980s. In a political climate of aggressive government persecution of homosexuals and muted homophile resistance, Seidman argues that the message of such films as The Children’s Hour (1961) and Advise and Consent (1962) was that it was society’s intolerance of homosexuality that was at fault, not the circumspect homosexual. This changes with the post gay liberation emergence of a proud and assertive homosexuality, whereupon the ‘idea of an exclusively heterosexual public sphere was challenged.’ (p. 127) Following this challenge, Seidman charts Hollywood’s creation of ‘the polluted gay’ in films like Car Wash (1976), Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977), and the film that sparked gay community protests, Cruising (1980). Such films, Seidman writes, ‘construct a social world in which heterosexual privilege is reinforced by purifying the heterosexual while vilifying the homosexual and positioning him or her outside of normal, respectable American civic life.’ (p. 132)
Updating his analysis of popular culture, Seidman picks a new Hollywood trend in the 1990s, ‘gay normalization.’ (p. 126) The effects of these new representations are uneven. They draw ‘”the normal gay (p. 126)”‘ into the symbolic American heartland of home and hearth, yet they do this without destabilising heterosexual power. In films like Philadelphia (1993) and In and Out (1997), gay Americans are granted a cultural citizenship, but only if ‘a norm and ideal of America is defended that asserts the good, right and moral status of dichotomous gender roles, heterosexual love, marriage, and the family.’ (p.140) Thus the borders of sexual citizenship are redrawn. The category of ‘bad sexual citizen’, once the domain of the homosexual, is now less dependent on sexual identity and more on the violation of dominant sexual and familial practices (p.161). There is perhaps more to be said about the representation of homosexuality in Hollywood films than Seidman grants, and a film theorist might find larger chinks in heterosexual hegemony than this sociological purvey, but Seidman’s insistence on not conflating culture with institutional practice is instructive. Contra Archer, who is in danger of disappearing into a cultural playground of like-minded libertarians, Seidman reminds us of the importance of institutional politics: ‘The tension between the cultural legitimation of gays and their continuing institutional inequality is at the core of contemporary lesbian and gay politics (p.195).’
Despite this detour into cultural representations of homosexuality, Beyond the Closet is, for the most part, a sociological account of the changing contours of homosexual self-identity.16 To get a sense of how gay and lesbian life is being transformed, Seidman interviewed thirty individuals of different races, classes, genders and generations on their experiences of being in the closet (p. 6). For Seidman, the closet is a historically specific category (p.29), and an unstable social condition (p. 52). Defined simply, the closet is ‘a life-shaping pattern of homosexual concealment.’ (p.25) We see the power of the closet through the experiences of various men and women, but especially Lenny, a married family man in his sixties who insists he will never come out, and Bill, a baby boomer who married, divorced, and struggled with substance abuse before coming out in his mid-thirties. These lives illustrate the historical contingency of the closet. A closet may have existed before 1950, Seidman states, ‘but it was only in the postwar years that it became a fact of life for many gay people.’ (p. 25) So while growing up in the 1940s aware of his homosexuality, Lenny did not suffer anguish because he ‘never entertained the idea of a life organized around his homosexuality.’ (p. 28) In other words, the discursive opportunity of homosexual identity did not exist for the young Lenny. He marries because he desires a wife and family. It is only later, as the category of the homosexual sharpens, that Lenny’s closet takes shape. Again, Seidman makes the counter intuitive point that ‘the closet was perhaps an easier accommodation for Lenny than it was for many individuals coming of age after Stonewall.’ (p. 55) Through Bill’s eyes we see how gay liberation remade homosexuality into ‘the core of a social identity,’ thus heightening ‘individuals’ inner struggles’ with questions of personal authenticity (p. 55). Seidman wants us to perceive the changing psychological texture of the closet, as well as how homosexual experience is mediated through the sociological axes of age, race, gender and class. Better, he suggests, to speak of multiple closets.
But even this phenomena is losing its hold on gay Americans. Seidman’s key thesis is that the era of the closet is passing, with many gay and lesbian Americans organising lives beyond the closet (p. 91). If the closet was ‘a product of both cultural defilement and the repressive, coercive power of the state’ (p.164), then the 1990s saw enough winding back of oppression to allow for substantially different gay and lesbian lives. This isn’t to say that gay identity has been surpassed, as Archer would celebrate, nor rendered fragile by success, as Goldstein laments. Avoiding the polarities of the post-gay debate, Seidman provides a more nuanced analysis of changes in gay self-identity. The era of the closet, he argues, served up clear identity choices: ‘to deny or champion being gay as a core identity.’ (p. 86) But as the oppression of homosexuals recedes, and greater life opportunities open, ‘the choices are not so stark.’ (p. 88) In what follows, Seidman outlines a broad taxonomy of contemporary gay and lesbian identities: those men and women who remain in the closet, or substantially so; individuals who live outside the closet but choose to retain homosexuality as a core identity; those who speak of homosexuality as a core identity even as their lives suggest otherwise; and the decentring of gay and lesbian identity by those individuals who integrate homosexuality as one “thread” among many in their self-identity.
It’s this last approach that Seidman nominates as new and expanding. But even as this mode of living shares some of Archer’s identity scepticism, it does not endorse his ontological free-for-all. Nor does it huddle under the cloak of established identity politics. As Seidman comments: ‘In this wish to minimize the importance of categories of sexual identity we perhaps see something of the experiential underpinnings of a queer sensibility, which likewise both recognises the social power of sex identity labels and aims to challenge their force in people’s personal and social lives.’ (pp. 90-91) Seidman has, I think, discerned a central paradox of contemporary gay and lesbian life. Coming out increasingly enables the individual to move beyond sexuality as the organising principle of a life. Cultural shifts are deepening this trend even as institutions and mainstream politics continue to frustrate the demand for full gay and lesbian social equality. This returns us to the political, but far from a hindrance to pleasure or a bulwark against oppression, it may be an identity politics with a fresh tone and texture. In his interviews with gays and lesbians living beyond the closet, Seidman detects ‘a feeling of self-worth and moral integrity and a sense of deserving the same respects and rights as any other citizen.’ (p. 80) This isn’t post-gay, nor need it be, but it is a shift at the core of gay politics from ‘whether or not gays should be socially integrated to the meaning of gay citizenship.’ (p. 179)
From this perspective, the debates over gay marriage take on a new light.17 Predictably, Archer has little time for marriage. It is an outdated institution marked by ‘restrictions and disappointments’ (p. 161), and he has no patience for ‘the staid gays who so desperately want to marry each other.’ (p. 162) Goldstein is ambivalent about marriage as an institution, and sympathetic to those queer activists who oppose gay marriage on political principle. Yet his form of queer humanism demands that he back those gays who wish to marry. Gay marriage, he concludes, ultimately ‘requires progressives to support the right to do what they may not think is right.’ (p. 106) Moreover, in its push for civic standing, Goldstein hopes that gay marriage might enjoin the radicals and strivers of the gay movement, breathing new life into the tradition of queer humanism. Seidman casts a wider net. He acknowledges the liberationist objections to marriage as a male-dominated, repressive institution (p. 190), and the fears that gay marriage will reinforce a hierarchy of familial relationships (p.191). Ultimately, however, Seidman supports gay marriage on the grounds that: ‘to the extent that marriage in the United States is associated with first-class citizenship, including social respect, being denied this right is a pointed public statement of the disrespected and socially inferior status of gays.’ (p. 191)
But Seidman pushes his argument further, beyond equal rights to the capacity of gays to reform marriage, to hold institutionalized relationships accountable to their promise of intimacy between equals (p. 192). This links up with Seidman’s wider critique of contemporary America, an America tied to the fate of its outsiders – blacks, Latinos, Asians, women, the disabled, and gays (p. 204). It’s an ambitious vision; one that moves beyond the politics of tolerance to a truly multicultural society, distinguished not by absolutist styles of ethical reasoning and government, but by a moral pragmatism which ‘considers the context of action, the beliefs and values of the agent, and the possible social consequences of the action.’ (p. 202) In a fortnight where the California State Supreme Court revoked the 4037 marriage licences issued in San Francisco to same sex partners, the Governor of New Jersey resigned after admitting a homosexual affair, and President George W Bush again opposed gay rights in his speech to the Republican Convention, Beyond the Closet reminds me of the power of heterosexuality and the importance of politics. Or to rework Archer’s revelation: Girl, boy – it shouldn’t matter, but it does.
The End of Gay (and the death of heterosexuality) by Bert Archer, was published by Fusion Press, London in 2002, (pp. x + 228).
Homocons: The Rise of the Gay Right by Richard Goldstein was pubslihed by Verso, London in 2003, (pp. xv + 113).
Beyond the Closet: The Transformation of Gay and Lesbian Life b y Steven Seidman was published by Routledge, New York in 2002, (pp. ix + 245).
Robert Reynolds is an ARC Australian Research Fellow at the National Center in HIV Social Research, UNSW. He is the author of From Camp to Queer: Remaking the Australian Homosexual and is currently writing a book on contemporary gay life.
1. Dennis Altman, The Homosexualization of America: TheAmericanization of the Homosexual, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1982.
4. The Nation, 7 July 2003, p. 30.
6. For a sample of how this post-gay debate unfolded in Canada and activists’ critiques of The End of Gay see Sky Gilbert, ‘Everybody in Leather: Renegade Queers Pronounce the End of Gay,’ in This Magazine, January-February 2000, pp. 12-14; Bert Archer, ‘Narcissism of Minor Differences: Is Gay Passé?,’ in This Magazine, July-August 2000, pp. 15-17.Gamal Abdel-Shehid, ‘Taking Aim at (Bert) Archer,’ in This Magazine, September-October 2000, p. 10.
7. Alan Sinfield, Gay and After, Serpent’s Tail, London, 1998.
8. For a more sophisticated analysis of the function sexual narratives play in self-identity see Kenneth Plummer, Telling Sexual Stories: Power, Change and Social Worlds, Routledge, London, 1995.
9. Although a self-described conservative, Sullivan is critical of the current Republican Administration. In fact, in the lead-up to the 2004 Presidential Election, he has been toying with the idea of voting Democrat because of Bush’s ‘polarizing recklessness,’ not least on the issue of gay marriage. Sullivan’s chief complaint is that the Bush Administration has forfeited conservatism for a politics of international and domestic zealousness: ‘Domestically, moreover, Bush has done a huge amount to destroy the coherence of a conservative philosophy; and he has been almost criminally reckless in his hubris in the conduct of war.’ Sullivan concludes: ‘Put all that together, and I may not find myself the only conservative moving slowly and reluctantly toward the notion that Kerry may be the right man – and the conservative choice – for a difficult and perilous time.’ Andrew Sullivan, ‘The Conservative Party: Kerry’s Democrats,’ 25 July 2004, Sunday Times. Reproduced at http://andrewsullivan.com/main_article.php?artnum=20040725
10. Quoted in ‘US Liberals Uneasy at Rise of Gay Right,’ by Duncan Campbell, The Guardian, 8 July 2002, http://guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,751137,00.html
11. Andrew Sullivan, ‘The Marriage Moment,’ in The Advocate, 20 January 1998, p.63.
12. ‘The Camille Paglia Interview: An Email Exchange with Andrew Sullivan,’ posted 31 July 2002, http://andrewsullivan.com/interviews.php?artn=2002031
13. Richard Goldstein, ‘Right and Gay and Like it That Way.’ Internet exchange posted 1 August 2002, http;//thenation.com/doc.mhtml?I=20020819&s=letter
14. Bruce Bawer, A Place at the Table: The Gay Individual in American Society, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1993.
15. This is exactly how some gay commentators have reviewed Homocons. For example, see Dale Carpenter, ‘The Nostalgia of the Queer Left,’ in Independent Gay Forum http://indegayforum.org/authors/carpenter/carpenter27.html (2004)
16. See Seidman’s 1999 article, co-authored with Chet Meeks and Francie Traschen, ‘Beyond the Closet? The Changing Meaning of Homosexuality in the Unites States,’ Sexualities, Vol 2 (1), 1999, pp. 9-34. The authors urge a rethinking of the sociology of the closet in order ‘to view the closet as a strategy of accommodation and resistance which both reproduces and contests aspects of a society organized around normative heterosexuality (10).’ They also prefigure Seidman’s 2002 description of homosexuality as a ‘thread’ identity: ‘We argue that one effect of normalization and routinizing trends is the “decentering” of gay identities and communities – that is, homosexuality shifts from being narrated as a core to a more partial, more voluntary aspects of identity and basis of community (12).’
See also the commentaries on this article in Sexualities, Vol 2 (2), 1999: Henning Bech, ‘After the Closet,’ pp. 343-346; Robert Reynolds, ‘Postmodernizing the Closet,’ pp. 346-349.
17. Not surprisingly, polemics on gay marriage are multiplying in America. The most persuasive queer case against gay marriage remains Michael Warner’s The Trouble With Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1999. For a contrary view, see William Eskridge, The Case for Same-Sex Marriage: From Sexual Liberty to Civilized Commitment, The Free Press, New York, 1996. Recently historian Lisa Duggan intervened in this debate, noting the difficulty progressives have ‘to articulate a small-d democratic politics of marriage that demands full equality for lesbians and gays without accepting the logic of the “family values” crowd’. Lisa Duggan, ‘Holy Matrimony,’ in The Nation, 15 March 2004. Reproduced at http://thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20040315&s=duggan