Gay in the USA

Three new books reflect the mainstreaming of gay culture -- and demonstrate a willingness to confront some painful realities.


Johnny Ray Huston
May 2, 1997 11:00PM (UTC)

three books: One by a celebrity activist, one edited by a conservative essayist and one by a controversial AIDS-focused journalist. The first offers an informal study of gay life in and out of the cities, the second debates same-sex marriage, the third
looks at the relationship between social structure, behavior and disease transmission.

At first glance, they don't seem to have much in common, aside from the fact that all three authors are gay, white, East Coast males, and two (Signorile and Rotello) are friends. But actually, "Life Outside," "Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con" and "Sexual Ecology" signal a shift in gay arguments -- or at least arguments hyped by major publishing houses.

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Their uniting factor? Gay mainstreaming -- in particular, the celebration of gay monogamy and marriage. Whether this shift toward the mainstream reflects the entire gay and lesbian community is debatable. It's no coincidence that two of the most publicized gay and lesbian tomes of recent years are Sullivan's "Virtually Normal" and Urashi Vaid's "Virtual Equality": At times, the lesbian and gay community (or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community) feels like a "virtual" one, represented publicly by stars and self-appointed leaders.

Signorile fits the latter description, and his shift toward the mainstream has been rather dramatic. The author of "Queer in America" no longer champions the sexual nonconformity often favored by urban and collegiate-based activist groups. Today, he's singing the praises of gay couples in the suburbs, while attacking the ghetto mentality of many city-based gays. Still, he clings to his favorite dichotomy, in vs. out. In his view, many suburban gay men today are more "out" -- and thus more admirable -- than city gays, who sever ties (or simply lie) to erase their sexuality in family and work contexts.

The subtitle of "Life Outside" -- "The Signorile Report on Gay Men: Sex, Drugs, Muscles, and the Passages of Life" -- conjures up memories of Shere Hite, but Signorile's research methods, involving informal Internet surveys and casual chats, don't qualify as scientific. That isn't to say his observations aren't accurate. The cult of masculinity does have a strong presence in urban gay neighborhoods, with many men pumping iron and drugs for H.R. Giger-like machine-made muscles. Yes, the cult is powered by consumerism and ignorant (or dismissive) of feminism. Yes, it denigrates effeminacy, celebrating rigid extremes: muscle or drag queens. And yes, the cult is epitomized by "circuit" parties -- status and appearance-obsessed events (often with conservative corporate sponsors who are all too happy to take pink dollars) where men dance, do drugs and have unsafe sex (according to Signorile), often in the name of AIDS fund-raising.

The presentation and analysis of the masculinity cult in "Life Outside" are problematic, though. The book's interview subjects are uniformly two-dimensional and phony -- are they all unhappy Stepford homos programmed to spew contradictions and clichis? Or is Signorile first putting words in their mouths, then discarding them once he's gotten the quotes he needs? And whether relating history or espousing theory, Signorile tends to oversimplify. Anyone who's seen an AMG physique mag knows that gay obsession with muscles didn't begin with Stonewall.

Cutesy and catchy chapter headings are no substitute for thorough reasoning. On more than one occasion Signorile moans that gay male energy wasted on narcissism could be channeled into activism, that pool parties could become political parties. But rather than outline steps for consciousness-raising or group formation, he spends the final third of "Life Outside" rhapsodizing about gay men who've escaped muscle-queendom by living in the suburbs. It's unfortunate that he never gives more than passing mention to urban gay men who don't adhere to the masculinity cult. By ignoring them in favor of suburbanites, he fails to address the cultural and economic reasons why many gay men migrate to (or stay in) the city. Instead, he advocates the "deurbanization of homosexuality." Yes, broader integration definitely furthers societal acceptance. But Signorile's lavender-tinted view downplays suburbia's own stifling status obsessions, and the intolerance in rural areas.

Praising an increase in what he calls "postmodern monogamy" in his penultimate chapter, Signorile steps closer to ex-New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan, who argued for gay marriage in his 1995 book "Virtually Normal." Strange bedfellows? Yes and no. Labeled a conservative, Sullivan often sounds liberal, but he dodges both terms for a "democratic liberalism" that aims to "reconcile the irreconcilable" through reason. (Good luck, Andrew. The world isn't an Ivy League ethics debate.) "Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con" shows marriage is a lightning rod for debate because, says Sullivan, it's "the institution where public citizenship most dramatically intersects with private self-definition." In fact, in arguing the histories and meanings of homosexuality and marriage, the book's contributors -- sages from Plato to Ann Landers -- often sound like they're talking about other matters entirely.

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The book is neatly divided into 10 sections, including history, religion, the courts, debates on the left and right, the Defense of Marriage Act and the future of the battle. Read in one sitting, the book is like an absurdist epic. As the Bible gives way to the Supreme Court, Barney Frank and Sonny Bono(!) dance awkwardly in Congress and Sullivan squares off with Hadley Arkes (whose philosophical tenet seems to be heterosuperiority), brief flashes of insight vanish in enormous clouds of confusion. The result is hardly riveting from a stylistic perspective (one exception: a funny essay by Henry Alford), but it's handy for reference purposes.

Gay readers of "Same-Sex Marriage" will frequently experience the same strange dehumanizing feeling that accompanies news reports about the issue -- the sense of reading about yourself as a problem, as somehow less than human. Figures like Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch seem deluded in believing that they can change the mind of the likes of William Bennett through logical argument. While many shades of gay groveling and hetero condescension color the collection, Sullivan stacks the deck: Gay anti-marriage critiques are kept to a minimum, and a dismal minimum (a mediocre piece from the tellingly defunct Out/Look and an interview with Camille Paglia) at that.

Both Sullivan and Signorile's books suggest same-sex monogamy and marriage could help with AIDS prevention, a reform idea Gabriel Rotello's "Sexual Ecology" elaborates. But Rotello's book, unlike Sullivan's and Signorile's, is a bombshell. It's as controversial (and mass marketable) as the late Randy Shilts' "And the Band Played On," because, like Shilts, Rotello unflinchingly links gay male promiscuity with AIDS. But "Sexual Ecology," while well written, largely avoids Shilts' sensational narrative pandering. He also largely avoids the righteous indignation of, say, Elinor Burkett's "The Gravest Show on Earth."

With "Sexual Ecology," Rotello joins a very short list -- one that includes most notably San Francisco Bay Area psychologist Walt Odets, author of "In the Shadow of the Epidemic" -- of those who have articulated a transformative plan for sustaining gay culture and dealing with AIDS. While Odets and Rotello vehemently disagree on many points, gay men are better off reading both their books than neither.

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Rotello sets out to destroy what he believes are myths, namely that HIV is new, that it's accidental that HIV struck gay men, that gay men have always behaved in the same way, that HIV will soon strike American heterosexuals, that safe sex makes multiple partners acceptable. Well aware that any critical discussion of gay male promiscuity invites accusations of homophobia, he notes that different conditions in different countries cause transmission, but he pulls no punches in explaining how the epidemic has thrived thus far. In his view, highly promiscuous core groups both form a feedback loop and build bridges of transmission out to the overall gay community. Commercial sex establishments -- in particular, bathhouses -- were a major part of the problem in the '70s, with men having up to a dozen pickups a night. While Rotello never directly says today's sex clubs should be closed, the belief is evident in his arguments.

That's just one belief in "Sexual Ecology" bound to raise ire in the urban gay community, where many men, in Rotello's opinion, define liberation as "the freedom to be as furtive as possible." While Rotello's arguments regarding core groups are strong, his scientific authority does seem questionable at times. In his discussion of early-20th century gay sex he speculates that oral, not anal sex, was central, but provides no evidence. More provocatively, his views on the current risk of unprotected oral sex run counter to those of other leaders. Rotello places oral sex's risk factor much higher than most -- one-fifth to one-10th the risk of unprotected anal sex. Who's to say he's right? Many people. Who's to say he's wrong? Many people. Just last week, a letter to the weekly Bay Area Reporter by a doctor claimed only six to 10 people have ever gotten AIDS from oral sex.

The riskiness of oral sex is just one hot spot of dissent between Rotello and West Coast thinkers like Odets, who tend to take a more libertarian view than their East Coast counterparts. Their major point of contention is over how best to deal with the second wave of AIDS transmission. Like Rotello, Odets aims to stop HIV transmission. But he has more sympathy for and understanding of risky gay sexual behavior than Rotello. In Odets' view, homophobia has a strong effect on AIDS transmission. He argues that feelings of alienation from growing up in a homophobic culture cause low self-esteem that leads in turn to risky behavior. He believes open discussion of unsafe sex is a necessary part of the prevention process. And unlike Rotello, he acknowledges transmission within long-term relationships.

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For all their differences, the two men reach largely similar conclusions as they confront AIDS's catastrophic effect on the gay community -- basically, suspended extinction. They agree that the "condom code" -- simply preaching that condom use is safe -- isn't effective, or truthful, on its own. Both think gay men could learn from feminists; both think gay men benefit from integrating with the greater culture.

Neither Odets' nor Rotello's books are flawless, but they must be engaged with if prevention is to become more effective. Ideally, "Sexual Ecology" will lead to more honest, rational discussion about AIDS transmission, without feeding the hellfire flames favored by anti-gay outsiders. Ideally, it will generate practical, beneficial action. Ultimately, though, when it comes to life-and-death matters in large communities, books can only do so much.


Johnny Ray Huston

MORE FROM Johnny Ray Huston

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