Provocative Essays on Gay Culture Society's Acceptance May Lead to Ruin

Article excerpt


By Daniel Harris

278 pages, Hyperion, $24.95 *** DANIEL HARRIS' collection of essays, "The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture," is one of the best, and certainly one of the most provocative, cultural studies to be published in recent years. Its broad subject is assimilation and the erosion of subculture; its most brilliant passages are small-scale, close readings of the minutiae of gay culture. Harris takes it, a priori, that tolerance and acceptance of homosexuals is increasing in the United States. By tracing the distinguishing factors of gay culture back to the overt oppression of the last half century, he argues that as oppression diminishes, so too the defining qualities of gay culture will become absorbed into mainstream society. Gay humor, camp, vocabulary, self-image and political radicalism all stand vulnerable in the face of the leveling forces of cultural acceptance and commercialism. Harris is no sentimentalist and, while his book has a good, gloomy fin-de-siecle ring to it, Harris struggles valiantly to avoid romanticizing the past. His final sentence sums up the tone he has tried to set: "It is this complex and ambivalent attitude toward assimilation, toward both its necessity and its ultimate ruinous impact on us as a minority, that marks the pages of this book." Yet when he steps away from his overarching concern with assimilation and looks at its specific results, his ambivalence shifts decidedly away from this measured, almost bittersweet tone. Harris writes on the verge of anger, and he writes very well. Examining the commercialization of AIDS imagery and gay-pride propaganda, or the neutering of sadomasochism into a toothless form of self-actualization, his prose becomes, at turns, blistering, contemptuous and dismissive. More than a few readers will find their particular sacred cows fully butchered after his analysis. Harris finds texts and vocabularies where others would not think to look. He follows unlikely trails - pornography styles, underwear fetishes, AIDS kitsch - to unlikely, often debatable, always intriguing conclusions. He comes up with brilliant historical surprises - a gay personals magazine that flourished openly as a family "hobby" rag for boys and men in the '40s and '50s, for example - which he uses to trace history, and historical roots, farther back than conventional historical treatments. These essays were originally published in a variety of magazines, and they can seem, at times, to contradict each other. Examining the filming and acting in gay pornographic film since the 1950s, he discerns a slow change from naive body worship and romance to the contemporary arid professionalism of trained porn stars. …


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