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Adam Polaski

Is My Generation Destroying Gay Subculture?

Filed By Adam Polaski | October 06, 2011 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Marriage Equality, The Movement
Tags: Against Equality, gay culture, generation gaps, Hollywood Reporter, marriage equality, Rachel Maddow

RachelMaddowCulture.jpgI like Rachel Maddow. I really do - I find her television show entertaining, I found her Air America radio broadcasts intellectually stimulating, and I generally think of her as a positive, vocal member of the gay community. But while reading the cover story feature on Maddow in the new issue of The Hollywood Reporter, I found myself confused. One section of the article discusses Maddow's reactions to some states' passage of marriage equality:

Maddow keeps an apartment in Manhattan, but she decamps to the solitude of Northampton, Mass. on weekends, where she lives with her girlfriend of 12 years, artist Susan Mikula, and Poppy, their black Labrador. The couple met in 1999 when Mikula hired Maddow to dig tree stumps out of her front yard. "It was love at first sight," says Maddow.

Gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts in 2004, but Maddow says she and Mikula have no immediate wedding plans. "We know a lot of people who have gotten married but I don't think we feel any urgency about it."

Later she admits that she's actually ambivalent about the cultural impact of gay marriage.

"I feel that gay people not being able to get married for generations, forever, meant that we came up with alternative ways of recognizing relationships," she explains. "And I worry that if everybody has access to the same institutions that we lose the creativity of subcultures having to make it on their own. And I like gay culture."

The LGBT community of Maddow's generation is one that has only really begun to "win" legal relationship recognition in the last 10 years. Partners are in their thirties or forties, and they often began dating years earlier, when marriage equality was not even on the legal radar.

That's distinctly different from my generation. My gay and lesbian peers are in their early 20s, and they're beginning to enter more serious, long-term relationships. Marriage is no longer a hypothetical - no longer something that may be an option. That distinction provides a new way of framing our relationships, one where marriage is just as viable a choice as it is for our heterosexual peers.

My generation's realistic access to marriage isn't the only thing that's changed. I did the secret gay dating thing during my senior year of high school, yes, but I wasn't teased or picked on or labeled "queer" as a form of insult. I came out to my relatively conservative parents to little fanfare almost three years ago, and this summer I brought my boyfriend home to meet the even more conservative extended family - Grandmom and all! - without anyone even batting an eye (in fact, my aunt chose him as a Beer Pong partner and hugged him goodbye). My friends are mostly straight, but my references to being gay don't make them cringe, as I once feared they would.

Does the pervasive acceptance of homosexuality in my life translate to my personal erasure of gay culture?

Maddow's reflection makes me question: How important is this "gay subculture"? What does it even mean, and what purpose should it serve? Perhaps my inability to pinpoint the subculture is exactly the issue that she's talking about...

Let's return to the marriage discussion, one of the most clear-cut, legislative differences between same- and opposite-sex relationships. That distinction very well may not exist by the time my peers and I would even consider the idea of settling down.

I'm not saying that I'm personally going to pursue marriage as an endgame, and I don't view it as the pinnacle of what a happy, healthy relationship looks like. I've read the anti-marriage arguments - the idea that marriage is an unjust system that's little more than a contractual economic agreement - and I've been somewhat swayed.

But if I or other gay people my age were to marry, as I'm sure many eventually will, would that be so bad? Haven't decades of older members of the LGBT community been pushing for tolerance and acceptance and recognition partly so that future generations could have marriage as a legal option?

Would it mean that we'd be contributing to the destruction of alternative relationship recognition? Can't opposite-sex couples also champion alternative forms of relationship recognition?

Most importantly - and I ask this because I genuinely don't know the answer, not because I'd like to be flippant - on the community's road to "equality," is it contradictory to also desire a degree of separation, a maintaining of "the gay subculture"?

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Personally - and as someone who has faced violence, discrimination and a whole lot of crap due to homophobia - I am still rather offended by the idea that our culture will disappear because we're not facing sufficient hatred and prejudice (I also disagree that a few legal victories of marriage means there isn't still huge amounts of bigotry out there)

I think that's very demeaning of us within our culture - this idea that our identity, the spaces we've built and the culture we've developed are all going to disappear without legal discrimination

I also hate it because there's such a huge push from people to shame GBLT people who won't conform to a very narrow definition of what it means to be GBLT - if we don't follow these paths we're not REALLY GBLT, we're "assimilationists" or "imitating straight people." It's a shaming tactic and a policing tactic.

Isn't it always?

You move to America from another country, but your kids will never know what it's like to be born in raised from wherever you originated. They won't speak the language the way kids their age will speak it in your home country. they won't have access to the same food and lifestyle in a comparable way to living in that country. They'll never be enculturated the same way you were, but that's part of what happens when you raise someone somewhere different from where you were raised. The price for assimilation is abandonment of another culture.

Gay subculture exists because at the time, there was a need for gay subculture. Subculture was defined by being unable to create a mainstream culture. It stands to reason that as we move toward greater acceptance, that angst and that necessity will evaporate.

It's a tenuous balance, but it's the inevitable result. Sex in the bushes, tea houses, cruising...all of them existed primarily because you couldn't go out and date or pick up a sex partner in public. The Pride Parade, the activism, voting progressive, going to gay havens like gay bars, will inevitably dissipate if gays truly reach a time in which sexual orientation is no longer a big deal. They'll remain if people want them to remain, but only because they've existed long enough to take on lives of their own--cruising is now a kink more so than a covert way to meet people like yourself, Pride is a celebration of overcoming some obstacles, looking toward coming ones, and also drinking and having tons of sex in as little clothing as possible.

When you have no more angst, opposition, or conflict, then the way you lived because of the angst, opposition, and conflict will become less necessary. And for some, that means losing a familiar and comfortable and unique culture--such as recognizing relationships outside of an institution that we were banned from.

But it's not unique to gays. Every struggling minority that succeeds in breaking into acceptance into the mainstream will inevitably abandon the subculture that arose to cope with its struggle, or the curve of progression will rid the need of certain coping skills.

Of course, you could always shift the paradigm, but the whole point of social activism is to put itself out of business. If you eliminate the need to advocate, then you'll inevitably lose a culture of activism and advocacy.

Thanks Luminum for a very thoughtful response. I've been giving this some thought. When I'd first come out, living in Greensboro, NC, there were a couple of gay ghettos around town, and a fairly close-knit community which did have its own subculture. As Wilberforce notes, some of it was good and healthy and fun, and some not so much...but it was what we had. Even where I live now, in a much bigger city, I remember more of a "gay scene" that seems a little less vibrant now.

I admit to missing the good parts of that, and agree that we'll hang to those parts we find worth keeping, and let the rest go over time. It is the natural evolution of cultures. Think of all the original immigrant communities in NYC in the early part of the century.

Wilberforce1 | October 6, 2011 3:09 PM

No. I don't think it's contradictory to want to maintain alternate views along with gay sub culture. I've been influenced by both.
Beyond that, I try to celebrate the healthy aspects of gay culture and criticize the negative aspects. So I celebrate camp and gender bending and taste and art and fine living and community and creative response to oppression. And I criticize internalized homophobia, and groupthink, and the lackluster response to hiv, and the self hating crowd who've sabotaged us over the years, who these days are trying to allienate our allies in the liberal church.
The criticism has made me unpopular in the scene. But I don't care. It's the price you pay for independent thought.

Worrying about assimilation wiping out gay sub-culture is about like worrying that racial equality will wipe out African/African-American sub-culture.

First of all, history is what it is.

Secondly, part of the gay sub-culture is explicitly male+homo+sexual. As long as there are leather bars, fisting, gay bathhouses, and butt plugs, there will be a separate gay sub-culture.

Drag bars are also a sine qua non of gay sub-culture: They are not merely about a female form dressed up glamorously, they are about men with female pseudo-personae pulling off, one way or other, a crossing of the gender line. (Yes, drag approaches trans phenomena -- but drag is temporary performance, while transgenderism is real life.)

Chitown Kev | October 6, 2011 8:51 PM

Don't worry about it, Adam.

Gay sub-culture will change and be altered in many ways; hell, that's already happened in my lifetime.

Gay subculture changed because of the AIDS crisis.

It changed because of Stonewall.

Cultures and subcultures change and evolve overtime; I certainly know that from being black.

But as long as homophobia exists, so will gay culture. Period.

I agree with some of what everyone has said. I do not think that this battle of being Gay in a straight world is over - not by any means. The reality is that we are still being "hated on" externally and internally. As long as there are Gay bashings and the good old boys club (read misogynist Gay basher bullies)there is a need for community. Until our teens stop commiting suicide... until we have all the freedoms every f'ing one of them guaranteed to straights we will have the good fight on our hands. Do not be lulled into complacency by "trinkets" bestowed by benevolent dictators. Rachel disappointed mightily for someone who should know better- methinks she strives for acceptance ($$) from mainstream too much. She'll miss the trappings of gay subculture? Like 'boo hoo' miss or wistful sigh miss? Please Rachel - with crap like that you undo a lot of hard work we've been doing forever. Remember now that you're their token lesbian - everything you say is magnified - you are a spokesperson for the community whether you like it or not. It's called fame. Own it. Earn it.