The controversial post-gay movement seeks to redefine homosexual identity in terms other than sexual preference. Many local gay men say that’s what they’ve wanted all along.
It’s not easy keeping up with the gay community. Consider, for instance, the latest word to enter the lavender lexicon: heteroflexible. It refers to people who might be gay, but don’t know it yet, because they haven’t met the right girl or guy. Or perhaps it refers to heterosexuals who have open minds when it comes to the subject of sexual orientation. It’s not all that clear what a heteroflexible is. It’s a fairly new term. They’re still working on it.
Not too long ago, there were only homosexuals, a term coined by a 19th-century physician to describe individuals who were attracted to the same sex, a condition that was until recent times considered a mental illness. But all that began to change in 1969, when a group of drag queens at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, angered by yet another police raid on their clandestine establishment, sparked the riot that ignited the gay rights movement. Homosexuals, thereafter to be known as gays, were urged by gay rights activists to come out of the closet and assert themselves. Come out they did, unleashing a double-barreled blast of Gay Power and Gay Pride that blew a sizeable hole in heterosexual hegemony.
But then things started to get a little confusing.
The gay community began to splinter. Homosexual women wanted to be called lesbians. Homosexual men wanted to be called gay. Bisexuals and transsexuals got their own categories, too. The gay community disappeared, replaced by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual (LGBT) community. Lately, some activist groups have taken to adding an “I” to the unwieldy acronym. It stands for “intersexual.” Exactly why intersexuals aren’t covered by the transsexual category is uncertain. As mentioned, it’s not easy keeping up with the gay community.
At any rate, there’s no need to sweat it. The LGBT activists have everything under control, and lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transsexuals and intersexuals everywhere are eternally grateful and better off for it. Or are they? Is it really possible that all of the individuals in these disparate groups collectively known as the gay or LGBT community want and believe in the same things? Must every non-heterosexual come out of the closet and assume an identity based on his or her sexual preference? Does every gay man in Sacramento want domestic partnership benefits, the right to serve in the military, a slot on the Kings cheerleading squad, and a gift certificate from International Male?
Strolling around Lavender Heights, the three or so square blocks of gay bars and businesses centered around Faces, the popular Midtown dance club located at the corner of 20th and K streets, it’s tempting to answer yes to all of the above. Here, amid the bookstores, coffee shops and adult novelty boutiques, “gay” puts its most visible face forward in Sacramento. It’s a happy face, all gussied up in the rainbow hues of the gay rights movement. We are gay, we are together, we are of like mind, the face smiles.
But a growing minority of non-heterosexuals, particularly gay men, are beginning to ask what lies behind the smile. They resent defining their identities in terms of sexual preference. They reject the shibboleths of the gay rights movement, and the rigid orthodoxy that cuts off all serious inquiry within the gay community. They question the very existence of this thing called the gay community, calling areas like Sacramento’s Lavender Heights “gay ghettos.”
These homosexual naysayers are by no means in agreement on everything, but they can be loosely lumped into what is becoming known as the post-gay movement. While the phrase “post-gay” hasn’t exactly caught on, in part due to the aforementioned orthodoxy, elements of post-gay thought are beginning to creep into Sacramento’s gay community.
It’s a movement—or a way of thinking—that seems particularly attractive to local homosexual men, who arguably bear the brunt of the straight culture’s homophobia. Penthouse magazine may have made lesbianism as American as apple pie, but many straights continue to harbor reservations about homosexual men, a situation that is aggravated, post-gay thinkers say, by the flamboyant stereotype projected by visible gay culture—the in-your-face gay activists on the nightly TV news and the gaudy gay ghettos like Lavender Heights. “We came out,” these post-gay men seem to be saying. “Now let us back in.”
Self-described post-gay writer Rex Wockner, whose work appears in Outword, one of Sacramento’s two gay newspapers, agrees that gay rights activists still have many battles to fight, particularly in rural environs. But when it comes to large urban centers like Sacramento, the level of tolerance between straights and gay men is high enough to warrant a relaxation of the in-your-face activist stance and the need for a separate “gay community.”
In a column late last year, Wockner wrote: “In urban environments in First World nations these days, the people who actually care if you’re gay are limited to some (not all) fundamentalist Christians and some teenage boys who dislike their own homoerotic impulses. As far as I can see, tell, hear, feel and sense, nobody else gives a damn. Since I have no interaction with those fundamentalists or teenage boys, my being gay has about the same effect on my daily life these days as a straight person’s heterosexuality has on theirs.”
“We won and I’m over it,” Wockner concluded. The spoils of victory? “I’ve lost interest in gay life and the gay scene and have come to see them for the sometimes vacuous and sometimes needlessly segregated entities they are.”
Gays have won the cultural war? They’ve lost interest? The gay life and the gay scene are sometimes vacuous and needlessly segregated entities? What the heck is Wockner talking about?
“I’m objecting to people whose entire life revolves around their sexual preference,” he explained in a telephone interview from his home in San Diego. He jumped all over the phrase “gay community.” “Gay community? What’s that? We are completely across every spectrum. I think we have been forced, by segregation, into narrower experiences.”
Wockner is hardly alone with his opinions. In fact, although most of the gay men interviewed for this story hadn’t heard of the post-gay movement, many of them enthusiastically embraced what might be called the first principle of post-gayness: the notion that homosexuals should be able to define their identities by something other than sexual preference.
“Sexual preference to me is something very private, and it’s not something I want to be defined by,” said Steve Eagan, 45. Eagan, who owns and operates a hair salon in Downtown Sacramento, was married to a woman once and had a son before he came out in his early 20s. “I would prefer to base my life on who I am, not who I sleep with.”
For the past seven years, Eagan’s been sleeping with Tim Kennedy, 36, who works in the marketing department at Sutter Health. The couple recently bought a new home in Natomas Park. They’re living out the typical American Dream—if you don’t count the 30 or so framed posters of Barbra Streisand displayed on one wall of their home.
“He comes from the Midwest from two parents who are still very much in love,” Eagan said. “They’re so Norman Rockwell-ish. I think that’s what he wanted. When we met, that’s what we had.”
But Kennedy wasn’t always so mainstream.
“My second job right out of school was with an AIDS organization,” he recalled. “I went to college in a small town in Wisconsin where there was no gay life. All of a sudden, I’m in this organization where half the people were gay. It made me feel accepted, like I was a part of society. It was like real life.” The thing was, Kennedy’s temperament wasn’t really suited to being a gay activist. “I’m a pretty quiet person. I’m not opinionated on a lot of things, I like to go with the flow,” he said. He moved to Sacramento, where he met Eagan. Now they don’t have a lot of contact with the gay community.
“Gay community? What does that mean?” Eagan said. “I’m a member of the Sacramento community.”
“Occasionally, we go to the bars,” Kennedy countered. “Part of the reason we go, is that we just want to be accepted by people for who we are, to be able to hold hands.”
Eagan likes holding hands, too, but he’s not bothered too much by the fact that it’s still taboo for two men to hold hands in many parts of Sacramento. He’d like to see more tolerance, but at the same time, he thinks gay activists have pushed things too far, too fast.
“I’ve often told Tim that gay people are their own worst enemy,” said Eagan. “I think that we’re our own worst enemy because no one likes ideas crammed down their throat. It automatically puts a wall up. When you cross the line from sharing your belief to making people believe it, that’s when the trouble comes in. I think that the gay movement has gone beyond wanting equal rights into trying to change straight America’s beliefs. If you want to be accepted by mainstream America, you have to live within its parameters. If you want to establish new parameters, you can’t expect mainstream America to go along with everything. For the activists, it’s never enough.”
Jeff Scott, president of the Log Cabin Republicans’ Sacramento chapter, shares many of the same feelings about the gay rights movement. “When I tell someone I’m gay, I also tell them I’m a Republican,” he said. “If you’re a part of the so-called gay community, now you’re supposed to call yourself ‘queer.’ Forget that stuff. I define myself. If I say I’m part of the gay community, people automatically think, ‘I know how you vote.’ ”
He has been called, among other things, a “traitor” and a “Jewish Nazi” by gay activists. The thing is, his views aren’t all that different from theirs, to a point. He despises the religious right. He supports domestic partnerships rights and civil unions. He just happens to be a Republican. “Those who preach tolerance happen to be very intolerant when it comes to one of their own thinking on their own,” he said.
Scott, who also wasn’t aware of the post-gay movement, prefers to look at gay issues through a Libertarian lens. For him, being harassed in the workplace because you’re gay is the same thing as sexual harassment, which is already illegal, so why create unnecessary legislation? And even though the Log Cabin Republicans support national hate crime laws, he doesn’t necessarily agree with the position. “Every crime is a hate crime; no one commits a criminal act because they love you.” He takes a pro-life stance on abortion because “one out of every 10 babies is gay.” He supports school vouchers because it would permit parents to send their gay children to a safer environment than the public schools. He doesn’t buy into the miracle of coming out.
“For me, I don’t believe in this coming out thing,” he said. “The gay left says everybody come out, come out right away. Boom! You’re out.” That doesn’t square with his experience. “It took me years to come out to myself, and everybody else is supposed to accept it in one minute?”
“You can’t be anything but tolerant if you’re a Republican,” Scott insisted. One member of the Log Cabin Republicans is an evangelical Christian. Another member is so conservative, Scott won’t let him do media interviews. There are several members currently working in local Republican politics who are not out of the closet, Scott said. They simply believe that their sexual preference isn’t anybody else’s business. To those who suggest that being gay and Republican aren’t compatible, Scott asked, “How can we get what we want done by just working one party?”
Dr. Martin Rogers, a clinical psychologist who teaches gay studies courses at California State University, Sacramento, was not surprised that gay Republicans can identify with the post-gay movement. “Some of the more conservative folks are more apt to not make a big deal about being gay,” he said. “I’m suspicious because I suspect that being gay is a big deal to most homosexuals.”
Rogers was one of the few people interviewed for this story who had a working knowledge of post-gay theory. “The essence is that it’s time for people to get beyond focusing on their gayness,” he said. “Focusing on gayness creates distances between people, when now is the time to be building bridges. But my sense is you can’t get beyond being gay until you own your identity.”
“What people lose sight of is that everybody starts out being heterosexual, at least in the minds of their parents,” Rogers continued. “This eventually creates conflicts when the child’s sexuality manifests itself, usually during puberty, between the ages of 10 and 14. ‘Am I really a man? Am I sick? Am I evil?’ When these issues are resolved, the state of being gay is demystified, and one can own one’s identity. Then, perhaps, post-gay is possible. It gets more probable when the threats around you diminish. It’s hard to be post-gay, for instance, when you can’t get married, or you can’t serve in the military. Then your gayness looms large in your mind.”
But what about gays like Eagan and Kennedy, who already enjoy many of the benefits granted to married couples—such as joint health coverage through Kennedy’s job at Sutter Health—and couldn’t care less about serving in the military?
“Once you’re lost in suburbia, you don’t contribute to progress by changing the views of others, unless you’re open,” Rogers said. “If they’re out their in suburbia presenting themselves as roommates, they’re hiding it.”
Eagan and Kennedy are openly gay. But must all gays be committed to changing the views of others, to contributing to progress, as defined by the gay activist community? Yes, said Christopher Solis, coordinator of the LGBT resource center at UC Davis. He’s currently organizing a leadership retreat focusing on the topic of apathy in activism. He’s heard of the post-gay movement, and views it as a symptom of the very apathy he’s trying to fight.
“It sort of describes their emotions, that gays are tired,” he said. “They’re tired of being in the LGBT community. They want to blend into mainstream society.”
Solis admitted that the LGBT community has become, by definition, fragmented. “Allowing people to self-identify has benefits and drawbacks,” he said. “We could get to the point where we have letters for everyone.” He also identified with the post-gay notion of not being defined by sexual preference alone.
“I’m not just about sexual orientation,” he said. “I have a career, cats, a family, religion. To be constantly bombarded by the sex thing is challenging at times.” For instance, he and his partner of 12 years are thinking about adopting children, but Solis has gay friends who say such family values are incompatible with homosexuality.
Post-gay writers like England’s Mark Simpson, who describes himself as “not a happy homosexual,” charge that such differences are continually ignored by the gay community in order to support the illusion of a gay consensus. In the preface to Anti-Gay, a 1996 collection of essays that Simpson edited attacking gay orthodoxy, he argues that many gay activists “appear to want the younger generation to fight over again the battles of their youth, regardless of whether they need fighting again. Just as there is no such thing as ‘post-feminism,’ there is no ‘post-gayism.’ There is only letting the side down or collaboration.”
But despite the fact that Solis identified with some post-gay ideas, he still believes that you can’t be gay and not be an activist. “That would be the luxury of being heterosexual,” he said. “In our community, we all have to pitch in.” He’s deeply concerned about the younger generation of gays now coming of age. “They may not have an appreciation for the struggle. So many people have died in the older generation. They really don’t have role models. They’re tired of hearing about AIDS and safe sex.”
The fact that many gays still aren’t practicing safe sex remains one of the dirty little secrets of the AIDS crisis, according to post-gay writer John Weir in “Is There Life After Sex?” a 1995 article in Details magazine that was reprinted in Simpson’s Anti-Gay collection. Weir had been assigned to cover the so-called second wave of HIV infection in San Francisco, supposedly caused by young gays who were “barebacking”—having anal sex without condoms. But halfway through researching the story, an AIDS researcher convinced Weir there was no second wave of HIV infection, “just one big wave.” The rate of infection had decreased marginally for some groups, but had been compensated by an increase in other groups. Concerned about a young acquaintance, an AIDS prevention educator who admitted to engaging in unsafe sex practices, Weir writes:
“I’m looking for ways to justify what he did, but the point is simple, and almost impossible to accept: knowing how HIV is spread will not stop people from doing things that might spread it. It hasn’t stopped Elliot, and it hasn’t stopped me, and it probably won’t stop you.”
Mark Simpson has been particularly critical of what he views as the gay community’s complicity in the AIDS crisis. In his brutally satiric essay “Gay Dream Believer,” he theorizes that gay ghettos such as the Castro in San Francisco and Lavender Heights in Sacramento have made AIDS a vastly more lethal epidemic than it might otherwise have been.
“When all is said and done, the only thing to feel sorry about, apart, of course, from the fact that the Olympic Commission hasn’t yet accepted the Wet Jockstrap Contest as a sport, is AIDS,” writes Simpson. But according to gay rights activists, “even sadness isn’t what you should be feeling, except during those touching candlelight vigils. Instead you should be feeling angry at drug companies/the Government/Western medicine/the CIA/straights for letting it happen; and pride at the heroic way gays have responded to it and dismissing as patently homophobic and therefore not worth discussing, the suggestion that AIDS might not have been a gay plague in the West, that gays might not have had to respond to it so heroically without the ghettoism and hedonism of the gay seventies and the gay identity itself.”
Scary words, made all the more frightening by what appears to be a return to those earlier more hedonistic times. Consider an ad in the latest issue of Outword for Steamworks, a gay bathhouse in Berkeley. The half-page ad depicts a muscular, naked man standing in a sauna, a towel draped over his left shoulder. The slogan reads: “You don’t have to wait till next year for another good stuffing.” Nowhere in the ad is safe sex mentioned. And such shameless double-entendres aren’t confined to the ads in the back of gay newspapers. The Web site for the California Alliance for Pride and Equality’s “Raise a million voices” campaign is a case in point. “CAPE is assembling a list of voters who support full equality for LGBT Californians,” the site proclaims. “Join us. Enter your e-mail. A million voices are hard to ignore.” A worthy cause, right? Want to find out more? Just click one of the Web site’s two buttons. The first button says “Touch Us.” The second says, “Go Deeper.”
“I never thought of it as sexual,” said Eric Astacaan, a lobbyist for the Sacramento-based statewide organization, when asked about the Web site. “I certainly didn’t have that reaction to it. Each person has his or her own individual reaction, shaped by traditional customs and values. To me, sexuality is a beautiful thing. There are people who are so uptight about sex.”
Astacaan, a first-generation Filipino immigrant who described himself as flamboyant, agreed with the post-gay movement’s axiom that sexual preference should not be the sole determinant of a person’s identity. “Sexual orientation plays a role in my experiences as a person, but it is certainly not the defining notion of my being,” he said. “When I go into stores, people don’t look at me as gay. They look at me as Asian. I’ve been pulled over twice in Southern California because the police thought I was a gang-banger.”
“I see the gay movement as the logical extension of the civil rights movement,” he said. “This country may not be a utopia, but we’re making progress.” Is a post-gay world where individuals aren’t defined by their sexual preference possible? “I’d like for that to happen, but in the meantime, it’s still legal to discriminate against people for sexual orientation in 38 states.” But Astacaan sees no reason why every gay person has to be an activist.
“That’s why we have organizations like CAPE,” he said. California, which has already enacted domestic partnership legislation and is on the verge of passing a civil union bill, isn’t among those 38 states, which is one reason why neighborhoods like Lavender Heights have flourished. The post-gay movement’s message played to mixed reactions in the Sacramento’s so-called gay ghetto.
Naturally, most activists are skeptical of the post-gay movement. Jerry Sloan, 64, president emeritus of LAMBDA, has been a longtime fixture of the Sacramento gay activist community. Although semi-retired, he still conducts research on the religious right and he still occasionally pops into the LAMBDA building, just down the street from Faces. He grinned wryly as the post-gay movement’s first principle was recited.
“So, if they’re not defining themselves by sexual preference, what are they? Human? Cocksuckers, but human?” he laughed, shaking his head. “Within the gay community, you have some people who put on airs.”
But partners Ron Grantz, 61, and Larry Bailey, 62, co-owners of the Open Book gay, lesbian and bisexual bookstore on 21st Street, were more open to some post-gay ideas. “As soon as someone finds out you’re gay, they label you, and that’s who you are, you have sex with men,” Bailey said. “There are other ways to define a human being. Every human being is made of many things, not just sex. I always knew I was gay, but that’s only a part of me.”
“I think everybody wants to be accepted for who they are, not what they do in bed,” agreed Grantz.
The couple ran into trouble with local LGBT activists a few years ago for not including the “transgender” term in their store’s logo. “The ‘Transgender’ wouldn’t fit,” Bailey recalled. “The market for transgender books is only about 1 percent, but they were really upset.”
Both Grantz and Bailey think it will be a long time before the goals of the post-gay movement can be realized. One reason why? The number of gays who remain closeted. Grantz cited studies he’s read that say only 30 percent of gay men are out of the closet.
“Gay businessmen won’t come in the store, because they think we’re an adult book store,” Grantz said. “They want to blend in without being noticed.”
Bailey agreed that many gays just aren’t ready to come fully out of the closet yet. Occasionally, local television stations drop in on the couple to get input on gay issues. “When a TV crew shows up, it could be packed, and they run out of here. They do not want to be seen on TV.” If one were searching for Gay Pride in Sacramento, a bar like the Depot, located at the corner of 20th and K streets across from Faces, might seem like a good place to start. The speakeasy gay dives of the past, subject to impromptu raids by the police, have become a thing of the past. Now gays can proudly go to gay bars without fear of arrest.
On a chilling weeknight, the Depot’s smoking section, with clear plastic sheeting hung over the steel mesh grating to keep the freezing wind out, looked like the set from a low-budget sci-fi flick situated in a post-apocalyptic near-future. A dozen or so people, most of them men in their 20s and 30s, were gathered around the tables, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcoholic beverages, basking in the glow of music videos. But the first four men interviewed at the Depot for this story weren’t so proud that they wanted their names and faces in the newspaper.
At another table, two women and a drag queen sat smoking and drinking. The two women worked in the Midtown area and were trying to console the drag queen, Cathy Fuller, also known as “Grand Duchess No. 22.” Fuller explained that the title goes back more than two decades, when the first Grand Duchess began raising funds for the annual Ducal House Presents Chili Cook Off. Fuller was upset because he had just learned about the AIDS-related death of Grand Duchess No. 21, which had apparently happened sometime around New Year’s Eve.
“I’m alone,” Grand Duchess No. 22 moaned. “I’ve buried half my people. I’ve sat here and watched all the people I grew up with die.”
Beneath a long, curly, redheaded wig and a five o’clock shadow, his grief was as palpable as the night air was cold, and neither the consolation of the two women nor copious amounts of alcohol seemed to have relieved it. The many categories of gay identity to choose from seem only to have frustrated and bewildered Fuller. Forget about those stories of homosexuals emerging from the chrysalis of the closet as beautiful, self-actualized butterflies. It’s been hell for Grand Duchess No. 22.
“I was raised as a boy who was a girl,” he confessed. “I tried to fit in. I did not know where I was at.” He came out as a teenager, and his family immediately became concerned because he was “having sex with everybody.” Two decades later, it’s still not clear if he knows where he’s at. First he referred to himself as a transsexual. Then he said he was bisexual. Then he said he was gay. Finally, he settled on his identity as a fund-raiser for the gay community. “I’m a worker and that’s all there is to it,” he said. “I was sent here to raise money for the community.”
The Grand Duchess wandered off, and the post-gay world seemed as far away as ever. But the next night, Friday, an entirely different scene played across the street at Faces. Terrie Sidie, owner of Faces, arguably the most popular dance club in Sacramento, gay or straight, has been criticized by gay activists for promoting his night club in straight publications. For Sidie, the move simply made good business sense. “It’s the way the gay movement is going,” he said. “We’re just about—if not completely—like everybody else. That sounds kind of boring, uh?”
Perhaps. But the beautiful people hitting the dance floors that night offered a glimpse of what a post-gay world might look like, and it was anything but boring.
The main dance floor was packed with straight and gay couples undulating in unison to Britney Spears’ “Slave 4-U.” In the back room, diesel dykes and snap divas waited in the wings as young, muscular, shirtless gay men wearing low-sagging jeans and thong underwear struck masculine poses beneath flashing strobe lights. They were joined by macho white, black and Hispanic straight men, dressed to the nines, dancing with their equally well-coifed girlfriends, mixing right in.
No one seemed to mind.
A young drag queen, dressed in a sexy black evening gown, perched high atop a pair of stiletto heels, looked as lithe and almost as pretty as Gwyneth Paltrow as he hiked up his slit skirt and flashed his smooth, hairless ass to the crowd. Then he dissolved into the writhing sea of straight and gay people on the dance floor, and suddenly it seemed impossible—and perhaps completely unnecessary—to separate gay from straight.
Later, when the scene was described to post-gay columnist Rex Wockner, he chuckled knowingly.
“Welcome to the future,” he said.