THE RISE AND FALL OF GAY CULTURE
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
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