Gayness Becomes You

By Duberman, Martin | The Nation, May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview

Gayness Becomes You


Duberman, Martin, The Nation


Nearly fifty years ago, in Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse suggested that homosexuals (then the current term) might someday--because of their "rebellion against the subjugation of sexuality under the order of procreation"--provide a cutting-edge social critique of vast importance. Marcuse's prophecy may have come to pass. Or so some are claiming.

There is mounting evidence that a distinctive set of values has emerged among gay people (despite enormous variations in their lifestyles) in regard to how they view gender, sexuality, primary relationships, friendships and family. One even increasingly hears the claim that gay "differentness" isn't just a defensible variation but a decided advance over mainstream norms, that gay subcultural perspectives could richly inform conventional life, could open up an unexplored range of human possibilities for everyone. That is, if the mainstream were listening, which it isn't.

The mainstream's antenna remains tuned to a limited number of frequencies: that heterosexuality is the Natural Way; that (as we move right of center) lifetime monogamous pair-bonding is the likeliest guarantee of human happiness; that the gender binary (everyone is either male or female and each gender has distinctive characteristics) is rooted in biology. Those queers who look and sound like "normal" people (or are at least able to fake it in public)--meaning, mostly, well-mannered, clean-cut white men and lipstick lesbians--are being welcomed into the mainstream in mounting numbers.

But the armed guards at the gates continue to bar admission to (as they might put it) overweight butch dykes, foul-mouthed black queers or dickless "men" and surgically created "women" delusionally convinced that they're part of some nonexistent group called the "transgendered." The mainstream somehow senses that the more different the outsider, the greater the threat posed to its own lofty sense of blue-ribbon superiority. Fraternizing with true exotics can prove dangerously seductive, opening up Normal People to possibilities within themselves that they prefer to keep under lock and key.

But what happens when "normal-looking" queers start asserting how different from you they actually are--and start lecturing you about how abnormal your own proclaimed normalcy is? Take, for example, the arguments that David Nimmons puts forth in his new book, The Soul Beneath the Skin. His focus is on precisely those privileged urban gay white men who, judged by outward demeanor, closely resemble stereotypical heterosexual males; they don't look or act at all like those phantasmagoric renegades, the transgendered. Yet according to Nimmons, standard-issue gay males have birthed a strikingly different (and, he claims, superior) set of personal ethics and community institutions. These are guys, for God's sake, who hang out in gyms and look like football players! Yet far from being your average macho Joes, their subculture is, Nimmons claims, marked by "a striking range of cultural innovations."

What are its chief identifying features? In the past, the question has typically been answered by referencing a set of negative stereotypes that emphasize an obsession with buffed bodies, drug-driven dancing marathons, "circuit" parties of profligate sexual excess, a devotion to consumerism that excludes politics and the life of the mind, and a ruthless narcissism that denies entry to its playgrounds to all but stunning young white male bodies reeking of Ecstasy and attitude.

In The Soul Beneath the Skin, Nimmons builds a strong countercase, favorably contrasting gay male values with those associated with heterosexual men. Urban gay life, for instance, is notable for the absence of community violence. The gay male bar scene rarely spawns shouting matches, brawls or an exchange of blows. Our dances, parades, political rallies and marches are suffused with drama but nearly devoid of ferocity. …

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