Is gay passé?
National trend watchers say gayness is becoming so ordinary it’s losing its edge. The people paying attention to gay culture in Reno say there are a few ways to look at it.
There’s a Friday night dinner party in a neighborhood near West McCarran Boulevard. Someone opens a bottle of red and a bottle of white and puts them within easy reach on a faux-granite-topped kitchen island. Someone lights the gas grill in a neat but not-yet-landscaped yard. A toddler dodges under the table to pet the dog. The person toting diapers and a bottle isn’t a mom, though. All the guests are men.
The host is Tim Miles, an Internet technology consultant with a shy smile that makes him look a little younger than his 32 years. He’s gay. Some of his friends are gay. Most aren’t. Their orientation doesn’t really matter to him.
If you were looking for “gay” stereotypes at his dinner party, you could find a few. The guys are drinking good wine instead of beer; the place is decorated a lot better than your average bachelor pad; the white china and heavy silverware are perfectly matched.
Making a list of “guy” stereotypes is easier. While digesting their perfectly grilled steak, Miles’ friends splay out on overstuffed leather couches and argue over which of the hundreds of cable channels they’re going to watch. The guy holding the remote eventually stops listening. They watch a special on fighter jets for a few minutes, then continue channel surfing.
For Miles, being gay isn’t a matter of identity politics. He doesn’t see himself as being much different than anyone else.
In the bigger picture, urban culture watchers have been asserting for a while that being gay is no longer going against the grain. Gayness, they’ve been saying, has gone mainstream.
Hank Stuevert wrote in the Washington Post, “They’re losing the last strains of fringe chic, the vive la difference that once made homosexuality cool. Now being gay is boring.”
The brash but brainy syndicated sex-advice columnist Dan Savage wrote for Salon.com, “Gay culture is boring because gay culture is going away. And gay culture is going away because the oppression is going away. I think that’s a pretty fair trade.”
In trend-setting Seattle, where Savage lives with his spouse and their adopted son, being gay probably is so hip it’s square. But his geographical myopia didn’t go unnoticed. A Salon Discussion Forum reader posted, “I can tell you that I would not want to be traveling in middle America with a rainbow T-shirt and LBGT bumper sticker.”
Somewhere between the cultural bubbles of the ultra-hip, north-left coast and the set-in-its-ways fundamentalist Bible belt, there’s Reno, where traditionalism and Californication are both running strong. Reno has never exactly been a mecca for gay culture. But then again, there hasn’t been much protesting at the local Gay Pride Parade in a while either, and it’s not that uncommon to see straight people driving Volkswagens around town with “Hate Is Not a Family Value” among their bumper-sticker collections.
As anywhere, in Reno, gay culture and mainstream culture are interacting, overlapping and borrowing influences from each other. As always, Reno is doing things its own way, sometimes in step with national trends, sometimes not.
On the runway
Cable television had, until recently, Queer Eye For the Straight Guy. In each episode, five fashionable gay men would invade the home of a willing straight man for a lifestyle makeover. They’d school him in the fine arts of dressing, decorating and cooking as suavely as a gay guy. They were pushy. They were catty. But they knew what they were doing. In the end, the straight guy always looked better, and the straight guy’s wife was always ecstatic with approval.
Los Angeles has Queerstyle LA, an image consulting company run by “queer gals” in vintage secretary wear who specialize in helping clients find the right fashions to express their gender preferences. “Wherever you fall on the identity spectrum—lesbian, transgender, gay, bisexual, straight—we will help you realize your desired image and presentation,” touts Queerstyle’s Web site. A recent client, for instance, a butch, lesbian lawyer whose East Coast flannel shirts were no longer cutting it in style-conscious California, started receiving regular compliments on the new Kenneth Cole suits the stylists had recommended.
Reno has, well, nothing of the sort.
If anyone has their finger on the pulse of gay culture in Reno, it’s Robert Washburn, lifelong Nevadan and founding publisher of Outlands Magazine. He points out that just because there are no prominent gay fashion leaders in town, it doesn’t mean gay people aren’t fashionable. It’s just that fashion is a little more homegrown here. His advice: “If you want to see where queers are coming up with their unique interpretation of fashion, go to Savers. Queers are very creative.”
Speaking of glamorous thrift-store finds, Savers is also where people go to shop for Burning Man, which, from the looks of its pink fur boas, platform shoes and men of all persuasions in shimmery cocktail dresses, is one Nevada institution that’s taken its fashion cues from gay culture.
On the dance floor
More than a decade ago, a nightclub called The Works opened in Scottsdale, Ariz., in the Phoenix metro area. It was lauded by previously bored clubbers as the place that was inventing an exciting new demographic niche. It was a gay club where straight people could go to dance. No, wait, it was a straight club where gay people could go to dance. Whatever kind of club it was, the male bartenders were buff and shirtless, the female dancers swayed seductively on tiny platforms above the main floor, the music was loud, and the atmosphere pulsated with just-this-side-of-dangerous sexual energy. The place was always packed. The Works is no longer there, but for a while, it made gender-preference ambivalence an obligatory quality in a new dance club.
There’s no equivalent to The Works in Reno, but, according to Nina Brown, owner of the Patio, there’s hardly a divide between bars where gay people hang out and bars where straight people hang out.
“Everybody goes wherever the menu is that they want to see, as far as music or bands,” she says, adding that Great Basin Brewery in Sparks, for example, schedules a blues and rock lineup that appeals to the tastes of many lesbians.
The Patio is considered a gay bar, but no one checks your credentials at the door. Brown says the relaxed atmosphere and the karaoke nights attract a clientele that’s about 30 percent straight.
“We have more heterosexual men than ever,” she reports. She considers that a sure sign of a changing tide of acceptance. Likewise at her other bar, Reflections. The crowd is mostly lesbian, but anyone is welcome, including Brown’s 85-year-old father, who attended a recent benefit show at Reflections, called Dykes in Drag.
While straight men and grandpas are hanging out at gay bars, Tim Miles says, “My group of friends, we like hanging out at Green Room or Jungle Vino or the new bar, Se7en.” He has nothing against gay bars. He always visits them when he travels, but, he says, “Here, it’s just the same scene, the same thing every weekend.” He prefers to circulate in a larger crowd so he can meet new people.
At the University of Nevada, Reno, the Queer Student Union is just another cultural group. Compared to other college campuses around the nation, that’s business as usual.
Reg Chhen Stewart, director of UNR’s Center for Cultural Diversity, says universities with cross-cultural centers usually have gay student groups on their official lists of campus cultural organizations. He hasn’t heard any opposition to having the QSU on UNR’s roster since he took his post in 2003.
Last April, as part of UNR’s Annual Intercultural Month, the QSU held the Gay Prom.
Photographer Matt Theilen, who was hired to shoot portraits at the prom, describes the scene: “It was not a flamey thing at all. There were a few characters all dressed up and acting extra-gay, but for the most part, it was pretty normal, like any other dance. There were a lot of heterosexual people who went just to support their gay friends. As far as I could tell, there wasn’t anything special that made it different from any other dance or prom.”
QSU advisor Dan Jacques says the campus climate wasn’t initially so accepting. In 1998, when he was a student and president of the QSU (then called the GLBSU), the Center for Cultural Diversity didn’t yet exist, and the GLBSU was lobbying to be admitted into the Ethnic Student Alliance. The ethnic student groups supported including the GLBSU— “They realized if we were fragmented we wouldn’t have any voice,” Jacques recalls—but an advisory board of faculty and community members balked.
Three months of arguing ensued. “It was pretty contentious,” Jacques said. The GLBSU was eventually admitted.
In the eyes of God
Gayness may be nearly a non-issue in the worlds of fashion and entertainment—arenas that are, by nature, poised to absorb new influences—or on college campuses, traditionally havens of free speech. But in religion, the topic is not so casual. In church, homosexuality is a more sensitive topic.
“It tweaks with people’s personal morals,” says Rev. Denise Cordova, the openly gay pastor of Reno’s Light of the Soul Christian Ministry. “My experience with American religion is that [homosexuality] is the-elephant-in-the-room syndrome,” she adds. “As long as we don’t talk about it, it will go away.”
For Episcopals, homosexuality is not going away. It is being talked about—though certainly not agreed upon. In 2003, Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson, who is gay, was elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. Some Episcopals were offended by his homosexuality. In New Jersey, Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, who is also gay, is one of six candidates for Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Newark. The election is scheduled for September. Meanwhile, six Episcopal dioceses and a few individual parishes have announced plans to break from the church over the 2003 election of Robinson. The results of both the 2003 election and the one pending are also threatening international riffs within the church.
Most major religions maintain that homosexuality is objectionable, and most do not condone gay religious leaders.
In Reno, Rev. Cordova’s ministry takes an unusual position for a Christian church. It welcomes people of any persuasion.
“My understanding of Christianity is simple,” she says. “Love God, and love your neighbor. I’ve heard many Christians profess that we should hate the sin, love the sinner. I think the problem lies within the fact that they tend to remember the hate part and not the love part.”
“I believe that the GLBTQ community is claiming its place in the dominion of God, and that’s always scary to those who would like us to remain silent,” she says. “I really believe it’s time to stand up and say enough is enough. The voices of the GLBTQ community are so audible that American religion can’t help but hear what we’re saying.”
Religion doesn’t tend to change at anywhere near the rate of fashion, nightlife or college. But Cordova believes that even in religion, change is impending.
“The biggest indication is all of the discussion with regard to gay marriage,” she says.
At the altar (and in the society pages), change is underway, never mind public votes on gay marriage.
In 2002, the New York Times Weddings Page became the Weddings and Ceremonies Page.
“In making this change, we acknowledge the newsworthiness of a growing and visible trend in society toward public celebration of commitment by gay and lesbian couples,” executive editor Howell Raines told a British news service.
In the Reno Gazette-Journal, wedding announcements are paid announcements run through the classifieds department. No one in the newsroom or at the classifieds desk can remember running one for a same-sex couple, although there is no policy explicitly prohibiting the newspaper doing so.
Veteran RG-J columnist Cory Farley gave his personal stance in his July 11 column: “For the record, This Space supports gay marriage. I’ve said so in several previous columns.”
Farley says he received about 20-25 emails after running that column, most of them supporting his position.
“The ones who have objected have reacted on strict religious grounds,” he says.
Nevada is one of 49 states that doesn’t sanction same-sex marriages. (Only Massachusetts does.) Light of the Soul Christian Ministry does sanction them. They’re referred to as “holy unions,” and Rev. Cordova has performed five of them in the last year.
In the end
Reno hasn’t reached a consensus on whether being gay is radical or ho-hum. With the possible exception of Massachusetts, no place has. Popular culture and mainstream religion don’t usually agree on much. Not even in Seattle or the Midwest.
And while many say there’s not much difference between gay culture and mainstream culture, not everyone travels between those two worlds as seamlessly as Tim Miles does. Not everyone who’s gay is aiming for assimilation.
Outlands Magazine publisher Robert Washburn says, “Some want to stay fringe. There’s a large underground culture that will always stay within the comfort of the GLBT community. There are many parts of our community that aren’t going to be accepted anywhere: transvestites, bisexuals.”
He also points out that acceptance at night clubs or progressive churches doesn’t mean the gay rights movement is over.
“Just because it’s becoming accepted a little more doesn’t mean that our legal rights have changed. We don’t have the right to be married or engage in civil liberties or have the same rights medically, with insurance.”
Rev. Denise Cordova thinks it’s only a matter of time before legally recognized same-sex marriages will secure those rights, but she doesn’t anticipate it will be an easy process.
“I believe that it will take a lot of communication and understanding from both the GLBTQ community and the heterosexual community,” she says. Cordova is 49; she’s hoping to be around for another half century; she says, “I believe that it will happen in my lifetime.”