Gay Culture; or, In Which a Nerd Tries to Talk About Lady Gaga

While I don’t really know anything about or take the least bit of interest in Lady Gaga, I was interested by something she said in an interview with OUT Magazine:

That’s another clause in the Gagaland constitution: Gay culture shall gush undiluted into the rapids of society. It shall not be co-opted, fancified, dolled up, or Uncle Tommed. “I very much want to inject gay culture into the mainstream,” she says, “It’s not an underground tool for me. It’s my whole life. So I always sort of joke the real motivation is to just turn the world gay.”

I have had some awfully strange conversations in my time about whether there is in fact such a thing as gay culture, but let’s for a second accept that there is, since it’s my main research interest (if I may be so presumptuous as a college sophomore as to have a “research interest”). In any case, as much as I admire this liberationist sense of bringing gay culture to the masses and therefore making a space for it in a hostile world (and I do think it’s interesting that what we’re talking about here is gay culture, in its historical, pre-liberation, campy sense, not LGBT culture), I don’t think that’s going to work. Gay culture has always been a subculture, an underground culture, a counterculture. So many of the hallmarks of this culture—its language, its celebrated heroes, its sense of fashion, its codes of behavior—are based in the need to remain visible to people in the life (to appropriate an early 20th century term) but invisible to those outside it. The construction of a heterosexual identity may have come in response to the construction of a homosexual identity; the straight state may have emerged in response to gender and sexuality nonconformity, but gay culture has always been in the position of subverting the mainstream, undermining it, reacting to it, questioning it, parodying it, etc.

An easy example is the phrase “coming out,” which long preceded the metaphor of the “closet”: it was appropriated from upper-class socialite lingo, where it meant a young woman’s introduction to high society, such as in the form of a debutante ball. It was only one of many ways in which early urban American gay culture parodied high society and its social functions, and thus it subverted the expectations of gender roles, marriage, and domesticity that pervaded how that culture regarded young people, particularly young women. While some of this is wrapped up in the way that homosexuality was sometimes interpreted as an issue of gender identity rather than sexual object choice, and involved a lot of men whom we would now regard as gay identifying with an explicitly feminine-centric image for that reason, it is as clear an indication as any of how gay culture has an identity that is inherently anti-mainstream.

Lady Gaga certainly isn’t the first person to seek to bring gay culture into the mainstream public eye, and it’s undeniable that young urban culture in particular has appropriated a number of pieces of culture that were once exclusively gay. But as much as I believe that what we call “gay culture” is and has always been about so much more (as someone once tried to tell me) than anonymous sex in bathhouses, and therefore ended with AIDS, I do think that it will cease to be unique if it becomes sufficiently mainstream that it no longer has a different culture to react against.

However, what I do see happening already, and which I think will continue as homosexuality becomes less stigmatized and more incorporated into western democracies’ legal frameworks, is the separation of “gay culture” from exclusive identification of “men who have sex with men.” There is a whole trend of straight men who have an affinity for gay culture tropes, and of course (all that “gay best friend” talk aside), a lot of women who are increasingly taking part in a culture that has had a tendency towards quite a lot of sexism. Gay culture is also more welcoming to transfolk these days, and while I’m hesitant to make broad cultural declarations based on limited personal experience, I know a few transmen who, whatever their sexual orientation, have a strong relationship to pieces of gay culture and gay aesthetic. And as gay culture becomes about something more, or something different, or something that is anti-mainstream but not underground (an important distinction, I think), it becomes a radically different mode of identification from that which typifies the gay cultures of, say, the 1920s and ’30s. The gay New York of George Chauncey’s book would, I think, seem very foreign to today’s gay New Yorkers.

So is that what Lady Gaga intends to do? To make gay culture something accessible and identifiable to people who aren’t homosexual men? (I hope you see why I’m using the word “homosexual” here, even if it’s not the preferred term.) It’s understandable given what little I know of her career and her cultural aesthetic, but it means that we may have to start considering to what extent gay culture ever really was about sex—and what purpose it serves if it is no longer an identity for the outcast, the marginalized, and the underprivileged.

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