‘No Camp puffs…I’m begging you.’ ‘I don’t deal with silly little fags.’ ‘If you’re a screaming queen…FUCK RIGHT OFF.’ ‘Straight acting ONLY. And I mean STRAIGHT ACTING. Otherwise, jog on. ’ These are all direct quotes.
And they’ve not been sourced from some pro-Romney election campaign pamphlet. Quite the opposite actually. I’ve collected these charming snippets from personal profiles for gay men on digital dating services—“Gaydar,” “Grindr,” etc. And as an unashamedly out-and-out queer who indulges in the art of drag, it can become more than a little upsetting for me to have to be frequently confronted with these irrefutably homophobic sentiments; to twist the knife that little bit further, this antagonism is birthing itself in ‘queer’ spaces themselves. So why the fuck is this happening, and is there a solution?
To tackle this complex and contentious issue, let’s Turn Back Time (I don’t want to affirm any gay stereotyping here, but a shout out to Cher and that banging tune.) Documenting the sub-cultural transgendered vogueing/ball communities in New York during the 1980’s, Jennie Livingston’s epic and moving 1999 documentary, Paris is Burning, for me points to the inception of our proposed problem. We are escorted into a world of hairspray and glitter, where drag queens and every kind of ‘other’ you can think of are all vying for the number one spot at the ball—competition is hot: catwalk-offs, vogue-offs, make-up offs, wig-offs… At first, it is hard to be anything but completely in awe of every individual contestant in the documentary, each of whom has spent the little money they have – many are in fact homeless, jobless, saving up for gender-reassignment surgery, or battling with AIDS – to don a dazzling outfit for the ball, clearly having spent days choreographing an insanely chic routine. It’s a queer counter-culture with a mission, and there’s an overwhelming sense that nothing can dampen the “BITCH PLEASE YOU CAN’T TOUCH THIS I’M SO FINE” spirit going on down there.
But things take a depressing turn. In its initial phases it is the culturally more subversive categories – ‘best drag queen,’ ‘best vogeur,’ etc.—which are seen as the championing, most sought after titles. As the years progress, however, hetero-normative values seep into what was otherwise a haven of sub-cultural identity, with titles such as ‘best looking in a business suit,’ or ‘most wealthy in appearance’ becoming the crown (no longer tiara) for which everyone is desperate. Off come the fake nails and disco boots, and on come the brogues and ties. WHY? Well, I think this unfortunate dilution of counter-cultural practice is directly a result from what scholars have identified as a key facet of
postmodernism: the residual collapse of a distinction between societal ‘spaces.’ In the particular instance of Paris Is Burning, it is the appropriation of vogueing into the mainstream media that catalyses the parasitic deterioration of the community’s initial values. Vogueing for instance – in its origins consisting of drag queens expressing themselves through pose, in fact founded by the balls that the documentary in question records – becomes used by Pop Star Malcolm McLaren in his song Deep in Vogue two years before the release of Paris is Burning. Just a year later, Madonna capitalizes on this sub-cultural trend, and releases her most famous number, Vogue. A widespread celebration of an important sub-cultural movement? Erm, possibly, but this mainstreaming also constitutes a total dilution of vogeuing’s initial counter-cultural impact; a signature language of expression for queer subjectivity becomes mistranslated in its subsumption in the mainstream media.
The real woeful moment is the feedback mechanism that this constitutes. The music videos that appropriate vogueing are viewed back by its original parents in the balls with the illusion that their counter-cultural trend is being widely celebrated, even accepted. And this is KAK. Consider the icons who Madonna individually reveres in her song – Greta Garbo and Monroe – who all are white and wealthy, mostly straight, and have nothing to do with the socio-cultural climate of the deeply troubled community in which they are being deified. Madonna’s fashionable little epithet – ‘Vogue: there’s nothing to it’ – is equally insulting when considered against the acutely homophobic climate in which the dance was conceived. There is, actually, something to it. There’s a hell of a lot to it. Sadly, however, the images in such videos become subsequently replicated in the balls themselves, and thus we see the gradual appearance of white male business suits in the competitions. The smoking hot force of the counter-culture collapses. Paris ain’t burning no more.
For the deeply paranoid cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard – and it’s no surprise he was so suspicious of mass-culture’s appropriative tendencies – whom we looked at in our discussion of ‘hyperreality’ in an earlier article, this phenomenon can be positioned under the term ‘hyperconformity,’ which scholar David E. Clark has labeled as one of Baudrillard’s most ‘fatal theories.’ In a nutshell, hyperconformism constitutes the inescapable postmodern occurrence wherein cultural resistance collapses through society’s irresistible mimicking of the mass-media’s images – the precise catalyst for the dilution of the vogueing ball’s socio-political subversive impact. Clark poignantly summarises this nihilistic tendency as ‘society’s refusal of response and absorption of all meaning, neutralizing all the electricity of the social and political.’
Part of the problem today is the reductive depiction of gay men in the mass-media – idiotic representations of gay men as nothing more than fag-hags as in Sex in the City, or Queer Eye for the Straight Guy has led gay
men themselves to reject any notable signifier of homosexuality, purely because of its false and embarrassing associations as constituted through televisual representation.
I think, then, the blurring between hetero-normative societal values with queer culture – as discussed with Paris Is Burning – has resulted in this internalized homophobia that has been occurring ever since the 90’s, though it’s particularly pertinent today. With the masked appropriation of so-called ‘straight’ values in queer spaces themselves, more and more we see gay man rejecting any notion of a decidedly queer or ‘other’ identity. As a result – and this really is true – it is at gay institutions themselves that homophobia is sometimes most prevalent. I was actually rejected by a ‘straight-acting only’ gay club in Sydney four years ago because I was too ‘obviously’ gay. This is what the bouncer said to me.
Now, I’m not saying that we need a continued segregation between gay institutions and the so-called societal norm, as this would only be propagating hegemonic conceptions of the ‘other’ which are themselves deeply homophobic. It is undeniably fantastic how far society’s acceptance of homosexuality has come – though of course there is a hell of a lot more work to be done. This article, instead, is aimed at the gay men who have rejected – and have in fact become intensely antagonistic to – any identifiable association with their sexuality whatsoever. I’m not saying homosexuals are obliged to wear heels or anything like that—this may not float your boat, and that’s obviously fine. Do what you like. What I am proposing, however, is that this undeniable facet of queer identity has been part of gay culture for quite sometime, and its counter-cultural impact post ’68 has led to many of the victories that a lot of people totally take for granted today.
Surely it is the queer or gay spaces themselves where I should feel most safe, most comfortable, and most proud? Not totally insecure that my behaviour is too reminiscent of simplistic depictions of gay men in the mass media, and not reminiscent enough of normative values which are projected as weirdly superior on TV?
So, to all you ‘straight-acting’ gay men out there. Next time you see a drag queen at one of your joints, or a brave young vogeur posing ferociously on the dance-floor, please don’t turn your back on them. Instead, try giving them a hug and saying thank you. We need to stick together y’all.