The Fire Island outpost of Oak, the New York boutique frequented by stylish gay men, sells a T-shirt bearing the words “New York 1987.” Seth Weissman, the young co-owner of the Fire Island Pines, wore the shirt on a recent Saturday night and was bombarded with one repeated question: What did “New York 1987” mean? “It’s the year I was born!” he told one friend. (Not quite—the boyish Mr. Weissman graduated Wharton in 2005.)
Turns out the phrase is a reference to the title card of Jennie Livingston’s legendary 1991 documentary, Paris Is Burning. The film, for those—like Mr. Weissman—who need a refresher, is a seminal tract on a very specific sort of gay power. It follows a number of competitors through a series of underground drag balls in Harlem—battles for supremacy in which one-upsmanship is achieved through a gaze, a flawlessly executed pose and the ability to, as they put it, “throw shade.”
One competitive event shown in the film, known as “Executive Realness,” involves an elaborate pantomime of corporate life with contestants outfitted in business suits and swinging briefcases. “The fact that you are not an executive is merely because of the social standing of life,” one aspirant explains. This is, emphatically, gay power of an older vintage, power conjured through artifice and self-invention, by men defining themselves at an oblique angle to the society at large.
In those days, gay power was also maintained through other forms of performance. Andrew Kirtzman—the co-owner, with Mr. Weissman, of the Pines—began his career as a journalist on the island and once almost had his camera shattered by a closeted clubgoer. “That man’s concern was that [a photo] would be a career killer,” he said. “This man was probably not out to his family or in his workplace. And now, 30 years later, every other person you see is shooting pics with his cellphone.” (Indeed, we can’t wait for the cell-phone snaps from President Obama’s “Gala With the Gay Community” to get tweeted out.)
Let’s not forget Larry Kramer’s novel Faggots, set on Fire Island and published more than a decade before Paris Is Burning, which features a self-loathing, gay would-be titan of industry, the waggishly named Randy Dildough, who must conceal his sexuality everywhere else on earth to make it in business. (Mr. Kramer has said that Randy Dildough is based on Barry Diller.)
It really does get better! These days, gay power seems more or less the same as any other sort of power in society. “What happens with gay people as they become successful is that what they do eclipses their gayness,” said Simon Doonan, creative ambassador-at-large for Barneys.
Indeed, as we reported this list, a variety of career-conscious types asked us if they’d made the cut—not because they wanted to hide their sexuality but because they wanted in. (It was the “power,” more than the “gay,” that attracted them, we think.)
Which raised a question: Why bother with a gay power list at all, given how passé the whole idea has become? The answer: Don’t worry, we’re working on next year’s straight white male power list.
On the eve of what may be an historic vote finally establishing gay marriage in New York, it seems clear that homosexuality has gone mainstream. (Even straight men want to be lesbian bloggers, it seems!) As a result, narrowing a list of powerful gay figures down to 50 was something of a challenge. And, as ever, whom you leave off is all the fun!
About that: we’ve excluded anyone still clinging to the closet as we speak—be they national news anchors, media moguls, or prominent architects—not out of respect for their personal choices (far from it, fellas), but because the power to be oneself is the most essential power there is, and an unwillingness to seize that power—hell, flaunt it—seems like a reasonable disqualifying factor.
Twenty years after Paris Is Burning, the rules of gay power have changed, but the need for it is just as profound.
Welcome to “New York 2011.”
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