With the passing of the 40th Anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, many in the gay community have taken the opportunity to reflect upon the historic moment in our collective queer history and how the community and movement has changed. The days of police bar raids and mass funerals of AIDS victims are quickly becoming a distant memory, replaced by the new gay identity of DINC consumerism (Dual Income No Children), HIV/AIDS as a manageable condition, Absolut Vodka-sponsored Pride parades, and gay marriage. And for an increasing number of gay men, these memories aren't even memories. It's history.
Mark Harris writes about this "Gay Generation Gap" in New York Magazine, commenting on the inevitable generational tension between the gay men in their 40s and 50s and those in their 20s. A tension particularly conspicuous as queers of all ages assembled over the past few months for Pride celebrations.
"And at some point, a group of gay men in their forties or fifties will find themselves occupying the same bar or park or restaurant or subway car or patch of pavement as a group of gay men in their twenties. We will look at them. They will look at us. We will realize that we have absolutely nothing to say to one another... there's no topic, from politics to locker-room etiquette... that cannot quickly devolve into 'What are you, 17?'... 'What are you, some Stonewall-era relic?' sniping...
"And here's the awful stuff they throw back at us... At 45, I write the word 'us' from the graying side of the divide... We're terminally depressed. We're horrible scolds. We gas on about AIDS the way our parents or grandparents couldn't stop talking about World War II. We act like we invented political action, and think the only way to accomplish something is by expressions of fury. We say we want change, but really what we want is to get off on our own victim hood. We're made uncomfortable, or even jealous, by their easygoing confidence. We're grim, prim, strident, self-ghettoizing, doctrinaire bores who think that if you're not gloomy, you're not worth taking seriously. Also, we're probably cruising them."
Reconstructing Our Queer Identity
Harris offers a surprisingly even-handed critique of the seemingly perennial inter-generational skirmishes that Millenials and Boomers/Gen Xers constantly find themselves locked in. Gay Millenials are naïve, entitled, know-it-alls who are too quick to offer advice without putting in the time and suffering to gain sufficient experience for such opinions. On the other hand, to the 20-somethings the older generations of gays seem antiques of a political movement mired by self-serving identity politics emphasizing victimhood and perpetual struggle -- the idea of a free and equal society so far-fetched that actual victories are unnoticed.
These generational struggles between Gen Yers and Gen X/Boomers fall well in the wider clashes between cultural generations. It's no surprise that the 40-and-50-somethings resent the younger generation for enjoying the freedoms that they fought so hard to attain. This is the same kind of infighting that occurs between parents and their children, simply playing out in a culture which is not organized around such kinship systems.
However, I believe it's too easy to just chock up this generational gap of perspective to the cyclical nature of cultural change. There is something to be said about how this new generation of young gay men socializes and reconstructs their queer identity in a different manner than their forebears. Ours (being the 20-something... I'm 22) is a generation that has never known true isolationism. We grew up as our society's means of social organization were radically expanded and complicated by technology and the internet.
No matter how isolated or sheltered a childhood we might have had, we were only a few clicks of a button away from a wealth of information on those unknowable gays and lesbians. Much in the same way that young men, both gay and straight, learn about and shape their sexual identities within the comfortable privacy of their personal computers and internet pornography, young gay men often learn about and replicate gay culture through the messages given to them via media, the internet, and popular culture. This is a radically different method of cultural reproduction than what existed in previous generations of gay men.
The Method of Cultural Transmission
Harris notes that before the information age, the exceptional taboo surrounding homosexuality caused one of the only viable ways for gay men to learn how and what it meant to be gay was from their lovers. These lovers often were older gay men who took younger gay men under their wing and into their beds. This initiation of sorts into the gay life allowed for the integrity of a contiguous gay identity to be maintained; strung together from lover to lover-- one generation to the next. In this way gay men were connected to the previous generation of gay men and the stories, mannerism, social norms and mores were passed on organically.
This method of cultural transmission has, for the most part, been broken. My generation of gay men were brought up with homosexuality being an apparent and at times unavoidable presence in society. Regardless of how undesirable the concept might be, gay people at least existed in the communal imagination. Whether monstrous, comical, or realistic; gay people were a part of the conversation.
My generation of gay men has not been shaped in the same way that some major events in modern queer history have affected older generations. The peak of the decimation caused by the AIDS epidemic among gay men had for the most part passed by the time I entered elementary school. My gay generation never knew the horror of the unknown that HIV/AIDS presented to an entire generation of gay Boomers.
Rather, I found my gay education supplied by secretive viewings of Queer As Folk, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and late night airings of In The Life. Dawson's Creek, Will & Grace, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer all featured gay and lesbian characters which comprised key parts of my queer cultural quilt. And so, is it any wonder that my earliest ideas of what it meant to be a gay man drove me to purchase a pair of tight black denim jeans and floral print dress shirts the moment I came out? I forced myself to pour over fashion magazines so that I might 'queer eye' my straight friends. My early queer identity stemmed directly from the media images of gay men that I consumed.
It was only after taking courses on the history of the modern gay and lesbian movement that my eyes were open for the first time to terms like polari, rough trade, and AZT. I learned about where and how the modern gay identity developed and about early queer rights leaders like the Mattachine Society, Harry Hay, etc. It was through learning about the history of the gay & lesbian and queer movements that I gained a greater understanding and appreciation for where we are headed as a community.
The Same Political Pendulum
It may be true that the politics of the country have changed in a way that dates older gays and their political priorities, but in the same respect I continue to be shocked by the general lack of knowledge of modern queer history on the part of young gay men. Risky sexual practices like barebacking are having a resurgence despite safe-sex education efforts; HIV infections rates continue to rise for MSMs; a widespread political apathy amongst gay men severely limits the effectiveness of our advocacy; and continued systemic racism within the gay community are all signifiers that we need to take an even closer look at where we came from and where we are going.
Sure, many scholars are calling this generation the first "post-white" "post-homophobia" generation, implying an inevitable victory in the culture wars for the queers and the left in general. However, I do not believe our struggles can be won by mere leftward cultural drift.
Although this is perhaps for further discussion on another post, much of the rhetoric which epitomizes this marriage-obsessed generation of gay rights activists is oddly reminiscent of that which came about during the 1950s. I find it interesting that conservatives during the 1950s sought to strengthen the institution of marriage to accomplish many of the same goals gay marriage activists seek to change about gay men; namely making them less promiscuous, more long-term-relationship oriented, and more industrious.
They regarded marriage as being a prime stabilizer of men so that they might become a productive and reliable workforce for the growing American economy. But we now know that the proposed stabilizing affects of marriage are largely overstated, if true, at all. With divorce rates in America hovering around 50%, it is clear marriage is far from a risk-averse investment. If marriage was a bond, it would certainly not get a AAA rating.
In the same way, gay marriage advocates now claim that marriage rights will cure a whole host of problems which afflict our community: promiscuity amongst gay men, workplace discrimination, health care access, end of life decisions, even the continued prevalence of homophobia in our society. While I am sure some of these problems might be affected or mitigated by more gay people getting married, it is wildly optimistic to assume that being married will somehow prevent you from getting fired for your sexuality, or spared a beating at the hand of a bigot.
So, while it may be true that the Gay Boomers and the Gay Gen Yers have developed in very different times with dramatically different results, it seems that we all are headed back into a more conservative swing of the political pendulum.