Culture  /  Explainer

What Was Gay?

In a more accepting world, homosexual men can leave their campy, cruising past, but the price of equality shouldn't be conformity.
Ludovic Bertron/Wikimedia Commons

Of course, anyone who’s even eavesdropped on the long-running debate over “gay identity” among homosexuals will know that this position—that gayness might be located in sensibility or style as well as sex—is currently anathema. We live in the era dominated by a born-this-way, “it’s-a-small-part-of-me” ethos that minimizes gay difference to sexual attraction. The current dogma among mainstream LGBTQ advocacy organizations and the majority of gay writers and public figures sees gayness as little more than a hazy accident of biology that shouldn’t be legally or socially disadvantaging. Any notion of some inherent cultural affiliation (“gays love Gaga”) or unique sensibility (“fags get fashion”) has been pretty much disavowed within the community—imagine the uproar if some naive network executive tried rebooting a minstrelsy-driven show like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy in 2015—and many straights have gotten the memo as well.

This move away from broad-brush gay stereotypes is wise to a point. Ascribing an obligatory cultural component to homosexuality has caused a range of problems, from the merely annoying Oh you’re gay? Let’s go shopping!–variety to the more pernicious example of admission to safer, queer-only housing in prison being determined based on tests of “gay insider” knowledge or behaviors that not all queer people necessarily possess. Clearly, a person’s homosexuality should not be taken as evidence of any special affiliation, just as heterosexuals, united only by their sexual connection and propensity for procreation, are never assumed to share anything else. This has been one of the key arguments in the “we are normal” case for equality—and it’s been largely successful. Though the job is not totally complete, it feels like we are working as fast as we can to build what gay academic and activist Dennis Altman imagines in his provocatively titled The End of the Homosexual?: a world in which we no longer see “homosexuality as a primary marker of identity, so that sexual preference comes to be regarded as largely irrelevant, and thus not the basis for either community or identity.”