The Fear of Being Ordinary

A SPECTER HAUNTS THE "QUEER" LEFT: the normalization of gay life. Over the past decade, in movies, on television and in the theater, gay people have enjoyed unprecedented visibility. Further, the representations of gay people in these media have been fairer than ever before in showing the diversity of gay life.

Consider movies. Starting in about the mid-Nineties, fairness began to creep in. Priest and Philadelphia treated us to ordinary people who are sincere, responsible, hardworking, devoted to friends and family, and gay. These movies strongly suggested that in a better world, that last attribute would be among the least important facts about the characters. Their troubles stemmed from others' prejudice, not from their homosexuality. In movies like the Academy Award-winning American Beauty, it's homophobia that creates the problems.

Look at TV. Television shows from Frasier to Friends have woven gays into the story lines without much fanfare. Comedy Central regularly features openly gay comics. The "Will" of Will & Grace is an openly gay lawyer who dresses conservatively, lacks stereotypically gay mannerisms and gestures, and has all the usual vices and virtues you'd expect in a sitcom character. Will's hilarious friend Jack does have campy flair but at least he's seen as no more self-absorbed than any other character.

You would expect the American Family Association, the television reverends, and the various other anti-gay monitors of our culture to criticize such routine portrayal of unexceptional gay characters. And so they do; the routinization of gay life subverts every stereotype their prejudice feeds upon. But if you think they are alone in their alarm at the emergence of the ordinary homosexual, you are wrong. They are joined, for somewhat different reasons to be sure, by the self-described queer left.

The novelist Michael Cunningham, in a film review not long ago for the New York Times entitled "Just Your Ordinary (Gay) Guy," wrings his hands at the thought of masculine, "assimilated" gay men who are "just like everybody else, except for one little thing." Cunningham praises the character Diego in the film Strawberry and Chocolate. He likes the fact that Diego is "swishy and coy," worships the opera star Maria Callas, fusses over his collection of French teacups, and suffers unrequited love for a straight man. He praises the character - many of whose traits would fit neatly into the worldview of Lou Sheldon and the Traditional Values Coalition - as a "step in the right direction" in the portrayal of gay characters.

Other examples of this type of cultural criticism abound. There's the recent piece in Harper's in which the author lambastes periodicals like Out and Poz for showing clean, contented, freshly scrubbed gay women and men. Where's the unseemliness, the sex advertisements, the fetishists? asks the contemptuous writer. Pat Robertson might have asked the same thing.

The queer left saw cultural shift coming and tried to head it off at the pass. In her 1995 book, Virtual Equality, Urvashi Vaid denies that homosexuals are "just like" heterosexuals and describes gays as almost a subspecies of Homo sapiens, with their own peculiar values and ideas. In The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, Daniel Harris laments the demise of gay camp and kink. A few years ago, a columnist writing under the pseudonym "Orland Outland" for San Francisco Frontiers magazine, bitterly criticized gays "who have put their own sense of being alien behind" them.

You may remember Luke Sissyfag, the former ACT-UP activist who once distributed graphically illustrated condom packages to schoolchildren, regularly pranced before cameras in lipstick, eyeliner, and pink plastic hair barrettes, and championed the idea of a natural gay "queerness." He now calls himself Luke Montgomery and appears on fundamentalist radio programs to decry the "gay lifestyle" as "totally devoid of any moral character" and consisting of nothing but rampant sex and continual drug use. He says anti-discrimination laws are "fascistic," promoted by a gay community that doesn't feel good about itself.

Some say Luke's present and past personas are inconsistent; I say they are perfectly consistent. If there is one person who literally combines in one body the fear felt by both the queer left and the anti-gay right that homosexuals might one day be considered ordinary members of society, it is surely he. Whether he's trashing us or defending us, it's all the same. He wants gays to be seen as somehow special.

And that's just it, isn't it? Behind all the talk of revolutionary values, the need for a "sense of being alien," the supposed subversion of gender roles, lies the fear of being ordinary. It is the childlike need to have everyone's attention. If it is ordinary to be gay, there's nothing special about you on that account. You have no secret rings or rites, no hidden passages or esoteric language, no distinct set of values, no special insight into human suffering or longing. You're only an individual who must make your own way in the world, unable to depend on the safety of belonging to an elect tribe.

It is mythologizing and harmful to show gays as the queer left has romanticized us - as sexual revolutionaries, with alien natures and values, threatening and iconoclastic, angry, ennobled, and enlightened by our oppression, not "just like them" in the sense that matters. But we are better, and bigger, than that. We need not fear being ordinary.

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