To be queer in New York City in 1999 is a fabulous nightmare, a gorgeous imbroglio, and other maddening mixed metaphors. Gay men are still separated from each other, as internalized walls enable fashion queens to deride leather queens, drag queens to dismiss flea market queens, and everyone to hate Broadway queens. And we dis ourselves too, self-loathing remaining high atop the gay hit parade. (One of the most prevalent sounds on phone hot lines is that of a really femmy voice demanding “No femmes!”) But the enmity dissolves for a day when we take to the streets and drum up some communal pride for the world to see. It’s not really that much of a stretch because, after all, we’re now a throbbing market to cater to, a massive force to reckon with, and a cultural given. We’re more visible and successful than ever—and as a result of the fierce bonding the AIDS crisis forced us into, we now have a permanent knowledge of how to kick ass.
We just have to kick our own femmy butts whenever complacency threatens to make our house unlivable. Well, let the self-flagellation begin, because lately we all seem to be over the rainbow—and in fact over everything. Just because we want it to be history, AIDS has long become a back-burner issue, as disinterest, denial, and a misguided feeling that it’s now easily treatable have prompted a much publicized new wave of sexual apathy. Seemingly contradictory messages about sex are helping fuel confused behavior. (One bar rag recently ran a cover story about AIDS vaccine trials and used as a cover image a writhing, half-naked go-go boy.) The handful of remaining sex clubs play host to hormonal hunks who want to act out, but aren’t exactly sure how. At the West Side Club—which the city is, naturally, investigating—toweled tyros try to re-create the old bathhouse abandon they’ve heard about, but in their own self-conscious, millennial way. In the hallway, a wannabe nympho halfheartedly touches a passerby’s rippling chest. The object of his affection freezes, trying to instantly decide if the guy’s hot enough to deserve a reciprocal grope. There’s a tense moment as they distractedly gaze at each other’s shoulder blades, then separate because a panting audience has developed. But they’ll undoubtedly connect later in a private room, accessorized with the single condom you get on entering the club.
It’s all part of the gay learning process—except that what some have learned is they don’t even want that one condom. “Bareback bottom” has become a badge of reckless pride, a loony label that says sex is more important than anything else on earth. Indifference has attained a certain cachet, and for an implacable few, courting death has practically become an aphrodisiac. Correspondingly, AIDS activism has also been visited by ennui, losing the urgency that used to make it electric. In the ’80s, the plague seemed unfathomable, the throngs bolted up in response, and it was easy to agree on one do-nothing enemy: “the government.” Since we were all enraged at that one target, we found strength in the directed furor. But now we’re mad at everyone and no one. Numbed by years of horror, thrown off by subtly changing demographics, and appeased by crumbs of progress, we’d rather pretend that our crises have been resolved than face the mountain of alarming truths.
Occasionally remembering to be agitated, we snarl back at Giuliani, whose desexualized vision of the city threatens to fringe us into one big
obsolescence-ready mom-and-pop store—but since he’s got a bug up his ass about all fun, not just gay fun, he’s not as inspiring an opponent to mobilize against as more specific monsters would be. And the rage is further dissipated by the fact that our own leaders and organizations have to be constantly scrutinized—like GMHC was for its controversial Morning Party (which it has canceled), partner reportability (which its new executive director supported, then dropped), and employee unrest (which it faced when the same head honcho started thinking pink slips).
But I know some stuff that can get us riled up again. For all of our advances, the très gay America we’re living in is one where a talk show host can be massively penalized for showcasing the supposed horror of a man confessing his love to another (you know, the old homosexual panic scenario—and GLAAD pretty much backed up the court decision!). It’s a place where lawyers can argue that someone viciously sodomized with a plunger had been engaging in a consensual sex act. (Oh, yeah, we do that all the time—feels great, except for the splinters.) After every step forward, you’re reminded of the residual idiocy that holds everything back, as “gay” remains a stinging insult wielded by the holier-than-thou Columbine students of the world. I’ve gotten called “faggot” more times in the last year than in all the time before that, and though I always want to answer, “Yeah, you should come out of the closet too,” I’m always too stunned to think of it.
But we’re celebrating Gay Pride, right? All right, then let’s be glad that—on a bouncier note—the more things change, the more we still have Cher, Diana,and Madonna as our entertainment icons. Let’s rejoice that there are now gay characters in mainstream projects, and though they never seem to have sex, at least they might someday. And while homosexuality is still the most off-limits, dirty subject to the media—even gay publications never have the nerve to ask if gay stars are, you know, gay—at least they’re forced to gag on their reticence and think about it once in a while.
If these ethical issues prove too troubling, then just keep partying—and try to forget that party issues can be troubling too. The smart party gay doesn’t want to become too attached to any one club these days because it could be shut down overnight if someone seems to be enjoying himself too much there—though we long ago perfected the art of finding all new prancing venues. The trendy Moomba scene isn’t exactly a lavender paradise, so we stick to purple playpens that, for better or worse, we have all to ourselves. But there, we imitate straights’ oppression by drawing up our own exclusionary rules. The most muscley guys invariably win the prom crown, the brawnies once again gaining dominance over the sissies—though I’ll refrain from putting up those stigmatizing walls as long as they’ll stop looking down on the ab-normal. Deal?
As for the equally big-breasted drag queens, they’re still our fabulous, de rigueur court jesters, but—defanged by popular consumption—they’re threatening to become about as edgy as mimes. Of course, in ’99 New York, it’s real women that gay men have the most problems with. The “lesbian and gay” connection—which sizzled when we were forced together in the throes of the AIDS movement—has shorted, the shallow set deciding once again that they don’t want “fish” around to disrupt their sex parade. It’s yet one more self-imposed barrier that cuts us off from stylishly going forward.
But we’re celebrating Gay Pride, right? Well, I’ll just shut up and start cheering.