By Jeff Walsh
With the release of The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, Daniel Harris stirred up a lot of arguments within the gay community. The book tracks the assimilation of the gay culture by straight culture, and lists drag and the gay aesthetic as some of the likely casualties of assimilation.
Harris, 40, of Brooklyn, N.Y., recently spoke to Oasis about his book and what many of its messages mean to the queer youth community.
Oasis: How would you describe your book?
DH: The book is an attempt to look at how a minority is assimilated into mainstream society and to track how that process occurs and what is lost when it happens. I also examine the intrinsic features of the gay community that make us so eligible for assimilation.
Oasis: Is there still a youth culture within the gay community?
DH: There definitely is a youth culture, but I think in many respects it's identical to straight youth culture. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's certainly collapsing into straight youth culture. The two groups now share the same styles of dress and the same music and congregate in the same places. At this level of gay culture, at the level of young homosexuals, we're morphing into straight culture. I think this is an indication of a loss of identity in the subculture. Oppression gave us a strong sense of identity and group allegiance and if you remove the oppression, you're going to lose that sense of allegiance, togetherness and collective identity, which is what we see happening.
Oasis: If you look back to the goals of the early gay activism, like with the Mattachine Society, wouldn't that be perceived as a victory?
DH: Exactly, it is a victory. And the Rise and Fall of Gay Culture is nothing if it isn't an ambivalent book. I essentially say that assimilation is the ultimate goal of gay liberation, yet assimilation means the demise of many features of gay culture that I have taken great pleasure in over the course of my life. Specifically, our interests in the arts and aestheticism, which are fueled by oppression and a sense of social ostracism. It's absolutely necessary to remove oppression. But it's irresponsible of us not to look back on old forms of gay culture and take note of the contributions we made during a time when it was very difficult to be gay.
Oasis: How different is the gay sensibility now between generations?
DH: It definitely is different. Older gay men have a stronger sense of campiness and use proverbial displays of their good taste in very traditional ways, whereas younger gay men don't. Older gay men cling more to the gay sensibility and the younger group have lost it.
But I think it's more complicated than that. Some factions of gay culture are more assimilated than others. I think white, middle- class gay men are more assimilated than black gay men. One of the places where gay culture is alive and well is among minority groups where there is still a strong sense of oppression. Those groups continue to use displays of tastefulness to shore of the sense of their dignity. So, the erosion of the gay sensibility is very uneven. Some ethnic factions of the subculture have a stronger sense of the gay sensibility than others.
Oasis: Is the infrastructure there for younger gays to just want to fit in and not be activists?
DH: I think there are always going to be gay activists among the younger generation. I don't think that being assimilated means you're going to be politically ineffectual or unaware. Many of the most assimilated of gay people are activists. They tend to be a rather dull, Stalinist, ideological crowd. It's very necessary to keep fighting for gay rights, and I think young people will keep doing that.
Oasis: What kind of argument is there to be made about the loss of drag and camp?
DH: I think it's sentimental to hold onto these things. And I don't think they're going to go away in the immediately foreseeable future. One of the things that will be lost is diversity. As things like camp are phased out because they are no longer useful as a covert means of communication for gay men in the closet, there is a corresponding loss of diversity in American culture. That seems inevitable and not necessarily a bad thing. But it's wrong not to take note of it happening.
Oasis: In the two years of doing Oasis, the first thing I hear from young people is that they want to fit in, and don't want anything to do with drag queens or leathermen. Where does that come from?
DH: Those are the juiciest, most seductive images for the media to latch onto. There always has been, though, a tendency in gay culture to erase itself, to be afraid of itself, to loathe itself. If you are reviled by the rest of society, you don't want to look like that group. You want to be straight-acting and straight-appearing. The straight-acting, straight-appearing impulse in gay culture is age-old. So there's always been this self-destructive tendency, because gay men don't want to be implicated. And you still see that to a degree. They're still shying away from other gay people and don't want to be identified with them.
But I think we are overlooking something interesting, which is this new born-again queer phenomenon. Recently, there has been an attempt to hold on to the gay identity. Among my readers, one of the most critical groups was a certain type of young urban gay man who said to me "Look, I have a very strong sense of gay identity. I'm self-identified as queer." But I feel there is something distinctly artificial about this born-again queer movement. It's about anxiety about losing our sense of ourselves as a minority. You see the same thing happening with Jewish people. As Jews are assimilated into American culture, a new born-again Jewish movement starts to gather momentum. Clearly when a minority realizes it is being absorbed and obliterated, it begins to experience certain anxieties. I think rather than it being an indication that gay culture is thriving, the born-again queer movement signifies that gay culture is experiencing one last glorious sunset.
Oasis: What is the problem with the two gay generations not talking to one another?
DH: I think the danger is is that gay people are going to become a much less interesting group of people. We are going to become typical American bores. Totally cultureless bores, because good taste was one of the ways we evened the playing field with heterosexual philistines. We read, we made art, to prove ourselves to a society that viewed us as lepers. And once there's no need to prove ourselves, we are going to become just like the typical American bore.
Oasis: Did we do this to ourselves by boasting our disposable income?
DH: The fact that we use shopping for political purposes, to advertise our good taste, meant that as a minority we had a particular appeal to corporate America as a niche market. So, there was a symbiotic relationship between our need to display our refined sensibility, and the uses corporate America had for people psychologically addicted to shopping. Homosexuals have been economically attractive for a long time. The Mafia was essentially the first group to recognize our economic potential. They were the ones who first sold us sex, alcohol and pornography. And other a period of time, other groups have recognized the unique financial advantages of the gay niche market. For example, many cosmetic companies have used homosexuals as a bridge into the heterosexual male market, by getting straight men accustomed to the idea that they can use cologne and mousse their hair.
Assimilation was the basic agenda of the gay rights movement from the 50s. And it's an agenda I agree with. The only time the gay rights movement became anti-assimilationist was for a few years after Stonewall, when gay people talked about preserving their separateness and purity as a culture because they were better than straight people and they didn't want to be these dull conformists. But the fire went out of this self-congratulating impulse in the 1970s and the gay movement got back on track to pursue what has always been its primary aim, assimilation.
Oasis: Once assimilated, how much of gay culture will be lost?
DH: One thing that won't die is having sex.
Oasis: Well, if they got us to the point where we were having heterosexual sex... (laughs)
DH: Oh no, I definitely don't think that that will happen. (laughs) Certainly not, and we're going to still need to congregate in groups to meet each other.
Oasis: What was the scene when you were growing up?
DH: I grew up in Appalachia, in North Carolina, so my environment was considerably more oppressive than an urban environment. I think I had a stronger need for the gay sensibility than many people living near urban centers, who had a little more mobility and freedom. A lot of the campiest gay men come out of the South these days, Lypsynka, Ru Paul, and the social conditions that keep gay traditions like campiness alive are still preserved there. There's a lot more oppression in the South than there is in the north and urban areas. This was certainly the case with me.
I grew up dreaming of skyscrapers. I would look up in the American Heritage Dictionary the population statistics for every major American city and multiply it by 10 percent to discover probably how many homosexuals lived there. I dreamed of getting out of North Carolina. And one of the ways I got out of North Carolina was by cultivating my foppish, dandy-ish sensibility by reading books and educating myself and using my gayness as a way of catapulting myself out of a lousy situation.
There wasn't much of a gay youth subculture at one point in our history because young gay people reamined in the closet. Now we're starting to see gay youth culture as gay people are coming out at younger ages. I say that but then I came out when I was 13 years old to my parents.
Oasis: And how did they take it?
DH: My father was a psychologist and a reasonable person, so they took it fairly well. They weren't happy about it, and I didn't give them much of a chance. By the time I was 16, they were well on their way to understanding that they were going to have to lump it.
Oasis: Do you have any message for a youth audience?
DH: No, I don't. I don't feel there is a message to anyone. Just live your life how you want to live it. I am particularly appalled by people who want homosexuals to appear in a certain way to instruct heterosexuals. I don't think the purpose of life is to turn yourself into a billboard for anybody. I think that's a terribly dehumanizing thing, to set yourself up as a role model or a model citizen. So, I have no advice for young gay people at all.
Oasis: What do you think about the rise in unsafe sex among youth because they missed the initial wave, and now part of the message from people in the gay community is that AIDS is manageable.
DH: Well, I think barebacking is insane. I think that we should definitely wrap ourselves in latex for many years to come until we get some definitive word that we are out of danger. It strikes me as horribly irresponsible for people to be doing it and others to be encouraging it.
Oasis: What about the goal of many gay youth to "be happy?"
DH: Happiness is certainly oversold. I realized at a certain point that that has not been my primary aim in life, to be happy.
Oasis: Are straight people happy?
DH: No. And I don't think it should be the primary aim in their lives either. But I certainly don't think gay people should be unhappy about their sexuality. There are certainly enough other things to be unhappy about. I am completely indifferent to my sexuality. It's only a source of pleasure to me.
Click here to read Harris' thoughts on the AIDS quilt and the way the community has reacted to it.