From marriage equality to the end of don’t ask, don’t tell, this has been an extraordinary year. Here, Aaron Hicklin, editor-in-chief of Out magazine, looks forward to the end of gay culture
A funny thing happened in America in 2011. With the US political establishment in deadlock and Republicans bowing to Tea Party mandarins over a raft of issues from immigration to curbs on trade unions, one area of American civil liberties celebrated a watershed year. After decades in which gay rights have polarised US opinion, the country barely shrugged in September when a two-decade old law prohibiting gay men and women from serving openly in the military was finally repealed, prompting thousands of gay soldiers to post coming-out videos on YouTube – just one more example of how the web has transformed gay visibility. Less than two months earlier New York became the sixth, and biggest, state to allow same-sex couples to marry. To put that in context, there are more people living in New York than in the Netherlands, which in 2001 became the first country to legalise same-sex marriage.
The struggle for marriage equality has been one of the most bitterly divisive issues in America, but after a series of defeats for gay-rights advocates, the tide appears to be shifting irrevocably in their direction. A series of national polls this year has shown support for same-sex unions outgunning opposition for the first time since polling on the issue began in the 1980s – a dramatic turnaround from even three years earlier, when voters in California approved a ballot measure overturning same-sex marriage. In the 2004 election, under the keen encouragement of Karl Rove, no fewer than 11 states passed ballot initiatives banning gay marriage — a cynical get-out-the-vote ploy that helped swell Republican ranks at the polling booths.
The perception that marriage equality was a poisoned pink chalice persisted up to the 2008 election, when even Obama was careful to clarify that he wasn’t in favour of gay marriage, apparently heeding warnings from Bill Clinton to give the issue a wide berth. Yet in this year’s debates between the ragtag pack of Republican presidential nominees, the usual rhetoric denouncing gay marriage has been noticeably absent. Even Obama, facing precarious odds for a second term, has said that he favours repealing the notorious Defense of Marriage Act that has prevented federal recognition of gay marriages, even those performed in states where they are legal.
What changed in those few short years? In many ways the transformation of attitudes has been ongoing for decades, accelerated in large part by the impact of Aids, which reconfigured gay identity around community and relationships. In TV shows such as Glee and Modern Family, gays are no longer comic stooges or punchlines, their relationships treated with the same respect as those of their straight counterparts. They hold hands, they kiss, they even share the same bed. This was a quantum leap on 1990s shows such as Will & Grace, in which the gay characters had the whiff of “confirmed bachelors”, to use the archaic euphemism of obituary writers, rarely presented in functioning relationships, much less in love.
To young gay men and women today the idea that they will be able to marry and raise kids no longer sounds outlandish or controversial. It sounds axiomatic. They see gay couples getting married in states such as New York and Massachusetts. They see Neil Patrick Harris, a popular television actor, posing on the red carpet with his partner, David Burtka, and their two children. They listen, alongside their straight friends, to gay anthems by Lady Gaga, and watch popular gay-inclusive shows such as True Blood. Most of all, they communicate with a diverse group of friends on Twitter and Facebook, where gay and straight teens revel in their shared cultural interests.
It is all a long way from the windowless gay bar with the peephole in the door in Edinburgh, where I first learned to socialise with other gay people during my first tentative steps out of the closet. That was in 1993, and the bar was called Chapps, a dark and smoke-filled throwback to a time that was beginning to feel ancient even while there was little else on offer. Not long after, Chapps underwent a dramatic makeover. Out went the peephole, along with the buzzer that patrons used to ring to gain admission. In came floor-to-ceiling windows that folded open in summer, a cappuccino maker and a new name: Café Kudos.
Looking back it’s clear that this dramatic metamorphosis, from poppers to paninis, represented a broader shift in gay culture, or – if you believe the commentator Andrew Sullivan – the “inexorable evolution” towards the end of gay culture itself. Sullivan may have been overly optimistic in a 2005 article that he wrote for The New Republic, welcoming the receding differences between gay and straight, but he was the first to fully articulate the assimilation of gay identity into the mainstream. A year later, when I became editor of Out, it seemed pertinent to ask what function a gay magazine would serve in a world that, if not yet post-gay, seemed to be heading that way.
In Europe, many of the old prejudices were rapidly falling away as one country after another extended equal rights to their gay citizens. Berlin and Paris both swore in gay mayors in 2001, and with Chris Smith’s appointment as Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport in 1997, Britain had its first out gay cabinet minister. Alan Hollinghurst won the 2004 Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty, an unapologetically gay coming-of-age novel subsequently adapted for TV by the BBC. At the same time, millions were tuning in each week to Little Britain and The Catherine Tate Show, both of which deployed characters that sent up gay stereotypes without somehow reinforcing them.
But that was Europe. America was another matter. A few months after I arrived in New York the country was rocked by a gruesome murder in Wyoming, when a 21-year-old student, Matthew Shepard, was driven by two men to a remote field and pistol-whipped and tortured. Pleading for his life, he was tied to a fence and left to die. That was in 1998, and like Oscar Wilde’s prosecution in England a century earlier, it burned its way into the gay consciousness as a symbol of the unfathomable depths of hatred we could be subjected to. It also made talk of post-gay culture seem crassly insensitive.
Since then, a rash of teen suicides linked to gay-baiting or bullying has reminded many of us who live in cosmopolitan bubbles such as New York or San Francisco that life as a gay teenager can still be incomprehensibly lonely. The popular belief that people are now free to come out at a younger age was challenged by a major study last year, The 2010 State of Higher Education for LGBT People, which found that some students were actively going back into the closet at college because of fear of retaliation for being gay. One respondent recalled stumbling on a rally at his campus at which a student yelled, “We can either accept homosexuals or burn them at the stake — are you with me?” only to receive the exuberant response: “Burn them.”
Given such violent rhetoric it is not, somehow, surprising to discover that the principal advocates of the anti-gay policies that have lead to witch hunts in Uganda are associated with The Family, a secretive American evangelical organisation. America, after all, is not like other western democracies. Parts of it are deeply religious, and the country is so vast that liberal attitudes do not proliferate outwards from New York or Los Angeles as they do, say, from London or Paris or Berlin. If anything, antipathy to the weak-kneed liberalism of the east and west coasts stokes the flames of homophobia. As with the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, the more equality the state grants its gay citizens the more aggressive the pushback from opponents. There are still too many cities where the simple act of holding hands is an invitation to a beating, or worse. And while the internet has enabled young gay men and women to connect as never before, offering affirmation and support at the click of a mouse, the web has also given rise to new forms of harassment and bullying.
And yet, as more gays come out, it has become harder for their friends, families and acquaintances to stand in the way of their basic rights. In September, the campaign for marriage equality found support from an unusual quarter when former vice president Dick Cheney, whose daughter is a lesbian, appeared on a popular daytime show to announce his support for gay unions, adding the coda that “Freedom means freedom for everybody.”
Visibility begets change. Reality TV, for all its questionable ethics, has brought real gay people into the living rooms of America; in 2009, the most popular of those shows, Simon Cowell’s American Idol, was seen as a bellwether of changing attitudes as a young gay contestant, Adam Lambert, in eyeliner and glitter, advanced to the final. Lambert’s flamboyance conflicted with the show’s notorious reluctance to field openly gay contestants: he seemed to be telling us he was gay without spelling it out (until after the finale), and the subsequent conversation in the media, and online, showed how far we had come.
It was also a reminder of how critical popular entertainment has been in challenging attitudes, and it remains the single most compelling argument for the annual Out 100, a photo portfolio of 100 gay men, women and transgender people from all walks of life who live their lives openly and without compromise. Few are household names, but that’s partly the point. The androgynous Australian model, Andrej Pejic, who met the Queen in October wearing a vintage Versace pencil skirt is as much part of the unfolding gay narrative as the social secretary of the White House (and first gay man to hold the position), or Gareth Thomas, one of the most capped Welsh rugby union players in history. Collectively they represent the vitality and diversity of the gay community.
As we were photographing this year’s Out 100, one of those small internet anecdotes that suddenly go viral came to my notice. It was a conversation between a mother and her six-year old son about the TV show Glee that had been posted on her Tumblr account, and it went like this:
‘”Mommy, Kurt and Blaine are boyfriends.”
“Yes, they are,” I affirm.
“They don’t like kissing girls. They just kiss boys.”
“Mommy, they are just like me.”
“That’s great, baby. You know I love you no matter what?”
“I know…” I could hear him rolling his eyes at me.”‘
I find myself thinking about that conversation a lot, and how much it would have meant to me growing up to have role models that offered a template for what I might expect from life. And what it might have meant for the straight kids around me to see homosexuality not as something strange and peculiar, but as something familiar and equal. That six-year-old boy might grow up to be gay, or he might grow up to be straight. Either way, he will hopefully grow up without ever thinking it necessary to emphasise the distinction. Then we can truly talk about post-gay.
Aaron Hicklin is editor-in-chief of Out magazine.