What Do the Scissor Sisters, Grindr, and My Local Barnes and Noble Have in Common? or; Presumption and Gay History; or, A Rant Which Is a Little More Sarcastic Than Usual

Starting to overcome the jetlag and culture shock that greeted me upon my arrival back home in southern California, I ventured out of the house for the first time today. My mother drove me to the mall near our house and dropped me in front of Barnes&Noble, and before too long I was standing in front of the two shelves in a back corner labeled “gay and lesbian studies,” wondering what, in my first mainstream chain media emporium in a while (it’s been all independents, academics, and useds lately), those two shelves would hold. It turned out to be largely lesbian erotica (for reasons unbeknownst to me, only one volume for gay men amidst a sea of lesbian titles), but mixed in among every volume of “Best Lesbian Erotica” published in the past 15 years were—to my shock and awe—books and books about Stonewall. There was Martin Duberman’s classic text, and a new one by a local historian who lives on Christopher Street, and one specifically aimed at young adults, and a couple others too which I’ve now forgotten. And though the books I need which was half-hoping I might find on those shelves, like David Halperin and Jonathan Ned Katz, were absent, I did see a few classic texts of the work I do in Literary Gay Men Studies standing out amongst the erotica: Randy Shilts. Edmund White. It was strange, in a conservative suburban world which I imagine is everything that my academic world is not, to think that the Mira Mesa Barnes&Noble’s usual customers might care about gay history too, enough to buy one of five different books about Stonewall. I suppose it should have come as no surprise, really—I knew kids in high school energized into activism by the legend of Harvey Milk—but the incongruity was still jarring. I was so startled that I almost bought And the Band Played On—I mean, who knows whether anyone else would?

I think perhaps that I was attuned today to the extra-ivory tower understanding of gay history (and I use “gay” intentionally; I’m sorry to say I’m not going to be talking about LBT folks too much here) because I had a couple reasons in popular culture to believe that there isn’t much of that going around these days. Sure, everyone’s excited about Pride and stuff, but the Harvey Milk craze has more or less died out, the Frank Kameny craze was more or less confined to Washington, and none of the elders of the gay community are getting any younger when it comes to getting their stories out into the wider community. The increasing normalcy of same-sex marriage has supplanted the urgency of gay liberation; on a far more nerve-wracking note, HIV infection rates among men who have sex with men are sharply on the rise because men my age, born around 1990, don’t remember how awful the 1980s were. I worry that gay men and the LGBT community at large do not only take their history for granted, but are at serious risk of losing memory of it altogether—particularly as my generation, with its oh-so-very-different outlook on being gay in America, reaches maturity.

One event which has got me worried about this is the release of the new album from the very gay dance/pop/disco/thing band Scissor Sisters, Night Work. I saw the promotional posters all over Paris, and couldn’t wait to download the album; it turns out I love it, and have been listening to it a lot the past few days. And perhaps I am attuned to love it because it is an album steeped in gay history, from its Robert Mapplethorpe cover photo to its ’80s-style promotional video to band frontman Jake Shears’ bold declaration that the album’s concept is to carve out an alternative history for the past 25 years: “like AIDS never happened.”

And yet as much as I myself am at times consumed by a profound sense of loss from reading about a time and a virus I didn’t live through; and as much as I devour the history of the era just before, Shears’ explanation of his album makes me uncomfortable enough to sour me on the music. It is irresponsible history—verging on the point of moral wrong—to pretend that AIDS never happened. It (and I do not think strong language is out of place here) desecrates the memories of those who have died from it. I do not know that we owe it to our community to become steeped in the sadness and depression of the so-called “plague” to the exclusion of happier moments in gay history, but I think Shears—and all of us who listen to and love his band’s album—owe it to thousands of people, right down to the man whose ass graces Night Work‘s cover, to remember a history that does not sweep AIDS under the rug simply because it is as depressing as all hell. Rather, we can aim for a more cautious, forward-looking revival of musical genres and cultural aesthetics, which I think is something Night Work does. 2010 so far has been a year fatigued by marriage-equality battles and soured on gay civil rights heroes; it is a year that is perhaps more willing to embrace disco as it once was. Which is fine; I only ask that we turn ourselves to fashioning a disco of 2010 instead of trying to pretend as if it’s still 1978.

I’m not the only one taking this attitude: it’s saturating Guardian writer Polly Vernon’s article about Grindr, the gay-men-meetup-and-hookup iPhone app. If the Scissor Sisters are stuck in some sort of irresponsible time warp before 1983, Vernon is all forward-thinking. Positing that we live in a “post-gay world,” and drawing attention to the apolitical nature of Grindr, Vernon is very much a part of this 2010 gay world I mentioned which is both non-radical and fatigued by politics. Not to mention the fact that Vernon is talking about that most 21st-century of cultural markers, an iPhone app—and one which, she is convinced, is on its way to revolutionizing gay culture and, in this aforementioned “post-gay world,” straight culture too.

But if Vernon does not deliberately erase key swathes of gay history, she certainly seems pretty ignorant of some of them. She thinks Grindr will change the ways that gay men meet each other, hook up, form social connections with each other, date, and understand each other as a mapped-out community. She threatens the downfall of monogamy, raising concerns about monogamous couples where one partner might cheat using Grindr… but Polly, honey, where the hell do you think American male homosexual culture has been for the last, I don’t know, 90 years? Not all gay men are alike, to be sure, or find sex partners in the same ways, but cruising is a long and storied tradition stretching back far before the invention of the iPhone or the GPS or the social networking site. Since homosexuality has existed in America, gay men have had varyingly covert ways of recognizing each other and soliciting each other. Furthermore, as Jake Shears could probably tell Vernon if he hasn’t blocked it out, non-monogamy was the norm in the urban gay culture which Grindr targets until AIDS hit. As Edmund White explains it in The Farewell Symphony (I’m paraphrasing, as the book is in a box in Princeton), the gay community in New York so much understood its identity to be based in non-monogamous values that it had serious difficulty adjusting to a world threatened by infection in which it was recommended that you know the names of your sex partners. And even in our current century, in this AIDS-ridden world, the character Jamie in Shortbus says, “Face it: monogamy’s for straight people.” For all Vernon’s insistence on “post-gay,” there is still a not-insignificant band of the rainbow flag which defines itself in opposition to the “straight” world.

Of course, straight people have never been wholly monogamous, either (ever seen a cheating Senator ‘fess up on TV? or, for a less morally-charged example, ever heard of swingers?), and so I’m not sure what Vernon thinks is so new about Grindr’s potential in the straight market. History and my academic knowledge of these things leads me to believe that a disproportionate number of users would still be gay men, but I see no reason to believe that Grindr will dramatically change how straight men and women conduct their business. Those who hook up will continue to hook up; those who might once have attracted each other’s attention by glances across a bar or perhaps by their own version of the handkerchief code (yes, I’ve seen heterosexual-geared color keys) will just be adding another tool to their repertoire. Despite the wide expert knowledge Vernon claims due to her many pseudonymous gay friends, I don’t see any reason to be as excited as she is about Grindr. Yes, I’m sure it’s a shiny toy. Yes, I think it would be hilarious to watch my friends try it out in a bar. And yes, I’m sure it’s helped a lot of men have a good time. But it seems to me as precisely much of an upgrade to old-fashioned cruising as email was to the penny post: faster and flashier, but not fundamentally altering how we use the English language. Or pick up boys. Or something.

I wish Vernon would not be so quick to assume that, just because she has some gay friends, she knows what it is like to be a gay man and to belong to the gay male community. And I wish Shears would not be so quick to assume that, just because he is gay, he can rewrite the history of his elders. But perhaps I should not either be so presumptuous as to tell a musician and a journalist what I think of what they do on the basis of having read a few books and (yes, I admit it) knowing a few gay men. For just as Vernon will never really understand what it is like to be on the gay cruising scene, and just as Shears will never really know what it was like to live in the Village in the ’80s, I will never have the full understanding of this community that my gay male friends can—and it would be wrong of me to pretend that I can too.

However, I believe that, given the particular mission I’ve carved out for myself, it would also be wrong of me to stop trying. By reading more history, and being judicious about how best to apply it, I can hopefully bring my own outsider’s perspective to the recording of this community’s life before we all forget too much of it. Perhaps, after all, I should have plucked And the Band Played On out of the sea of lesbian erotica and done my best to pay my respects, even all the way out here in the California suburbs.

4 thoughts on “What Do the Scissor Sisters, Grindr, and My Local Barnes and Noble Have in Common? or; Presumption and Gay History; or, A Rant Which Is a Little More Sarcastic Than Usual

  1. Addendum: I’m just watching The Boys in the Band now, and in it another conversation about the role of nonmonogamy in the gay community. This is an issue a damn sight older than Grindr or Manhunt.

  2. I have to disagree, I think, with your thoughts on Night Work – as a historian rather than anything else (though this requires me to deal, however superficially, with 1980s gay history, which is about 1400 years away from my historical study and twenty years away from my life, so be forgiving). I’m not convinced that this sort of counterfactual history is morally wrong or desecratory, any more than I think The Man in the High Castle is fascist, and I think you’re maybe blurring the line between alternate history and denialism.

    Denialism, granted, is everything you say it is, and bad history besides – because it dresses itself up as real history – but I don’t think that this is a call to arms to forget AIDS and I don’t think that’s possible. I think this is better seen in the pretty respectable context of counterfactual history, asking what the gay scene might have been like if not for the fairly terrifying and crippling effect of AIDS, and I think that’s an exercise with a lot of value. It brings the effect of AIDS away from individual tragedy (which a modern gay man, as you point out, doesn’t necessarily fear) to a broader cultural loss, by giving a glimpse of what the gay scene would be like without it. Crucially, though, that wouldn’t work at all if the idea were to get everyone to forget about AIDS, because then it would be a standard work rather than what might have been – it derives its point and novelty from the very fact that AIDS happened.

    Alternatively, this may just show the pitfalls on weighing in on an album I’ve never heard and its relationship to a scene I’m not part of.

    As a final note, I love that on a post about the gay scene and non-monogamy, Google’s ads at the bottom are “Special Wedding Rings” and “Find A Catholic Partner” (though the last is probably since I’m posting from Eire.)

  3. Hmm. Thanks Rob. And I think this is a case in which there are lots of valid points of view, and yours is one of them.

    But: you said, “I don’t think that this is a call to arms to forget AIDS and I don’t think that’s possible.” What worries me, however, is that it might be possible–as we know from data; HIV infection rates are going up in some part because our generation is forgetting. I worry that this is an attitude that will lead Shears, his audience, and his community to assume an attitude which holds that AIDS is something we can put in a box and build a counterfactual, alternative-history world out of when in reality it’s still very much with us in the memory of people who have died and continuing to infect the living–and, no less importantly, outside the western gay community.

    I hope I’m overreacting; I really do.

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