The dying of the gay subculture (and why it’s a good thing)

May 11th, 2009

There really is a gaydar. The mistake that everyone makes though is that clues to a person’s sexuality can be gleaned from the way a person walks or talks or what clothes they wear.* Using those visual cues works only for those who are a part of the gay subculture. The home of musicals, dance music, and fashion consciousness infused with effiminancy and a non-sexual love of women. It was a place where gays could belong without being as harshly judged by bigots, and as a identity with which to find other gays. That culture is slowly going away as a distinct group, and that’s a good thing.

A distinct gay culture is an anachronism today. We’re living in the beginning of an age of marriage equality, where government accepts and provides support for one of the most common social constructs among humans, long-term monogamous relationships. There have always been heterosexuals who never had a problem with their gay brothers and sisters, but it’s increasingly becoming more acceptable to be openly and vocally supportive for their rights.

Some will lament this subculture’s passing, especially those who grew up to identify closely with it. However groups like this should be based around common interests and beliefs, not sexual orientation. If this subculture morphs into something that less aligned with a perceived gay lifestyle, it has a more legitimate reason to exist. This is already happening, with the unintended consequence of straight people having their sexuality questioned just because they like musicals or dance music or have a flair for design.

What this really means is that gays are becoming a more tolerated and even celebrated part of the greater society. The voices of hatred for those who are different is being drowned out by reason and tolerance. The most visible representation of this change is the counter-protests to the Westboro Baptist Church.

There still needs to be support systems for people coming to terms with their sexuality, but the need to belong to a specific social group is no longer necessary. It’s a good time to be gay and not want to fit any old-fashioned stereotypes.

And now for some random pieces of gay cultural history I’m itching to share (and they provide some extra perspective):

Judy Garland had a large gay following not just because she was a great singer, but the pain that she felt could be heard in her singing and she was a voice for the unhappiness most repressed gays felt.** Most of the effiminacy of gays from the 40s through the 60s can be attributed to gay portrayals in movies*** – gays could only appear as comedic elements or heavily coded to pass the censors. For a boy growing up in a small town with few visible role models, the movies were often the only way for many to find their identity.

Twentieth century gay subculture was defined by several important events: the Pansy Craze of the late 20s and 30s, World War II (it was the first time many gays discovered there were others like them, and the subsequent conservatism following the war brought invigorated repression), the political activism of the 60s and 70s, and the AIDS epidemic of the 80s. A set of slang, symbols, and philosophy of life developed that created a unified gay identity. This was crucial because of the cruel way American society treated gays and lesbians during the period; by having such a group to belong, it created a tremendous support system for a group of people trying to shake off the commonly-held belief that their sexuality meant there was something wrong with them. It was also an identity to align with, one that accepted people openly and judged more on their actions than expectations.

*So how does the gaydar really work? It comes down to non-verbal cues like where someone’s wandering eyes follow or facial expressions in relation to certain topics discussed, as well as verbal cues – the most obvious is the ‘pronoun game’ but there are others like an absence of certain topics (like chasing girls). Of course the easiest way to tell if someone is gay is to ask them and they give a straight answer (no pun intended) or you see them having sex with someone of the same sex, like yourself.

**If you haven’t heard any of Judy Garland’s later recordings, I suggest you check out Judy at Carnegie Hall or any of her later recordings of “Over the Rainbow” – the heartbreak is so strong it never fails to get me teary-eyed.

***For an overview of portrayal of gays and lesbians in movies, check out the great documentary Celluloid Closet.

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