By Tom McGeveran
[Ed. note: This article was originally published on August 18, 2003.]
“It’s a Gay World After All!” screams VH1 in a press release pumping up their Aug. 18 documentary, Totally Gay . The show, VH1 says, will capture a phenomenon that has built to a fabulous crescendo this summer. “In the early 90′s, the entertainment landscape was a virtual gay wasteland,” the promoters scold. “Fast forward to 2003, where ‘gay is the new black.’”
Gay is the new black .
In one sentence, they’re telling us that the gay-rights movement has met its moment, and now stands to rank with the greatest culture war of our time, the civil-rights movement; and they’re also telling us the movement is well-dressed . It’s as if we’re talking about a movement that takes orders from a glossy-magazine editor searching for this season’s answer to an age-old industry question. Picture Anna Wintour standing on the sidelines of a gay-pride march calling, “What is the base color this fall?” and meeting a resounding cheer: ” Gay! “
But underneath it all, there is a rumble, a bristling of dissatisfaction. Is this liberation, or is it stereotype? Is the current increase in gay visibility progress, or is it a retrograde throwback to the homosexual caricatures of the 1950′s, of a Nelly Nation of queens, hairdressers and interior decorators? Should we all just sit back and enjoy the show, as the caricature of the aesthetically obsessed, sweet-smelling gay man joins the American ranks of the non-threatening interloper: the funny little Jew, the tap-dancing Negro, and last year’s model, the fumblingly illiterate Italian mobster-the lovable social misfits for a new age?
Not if we have anything to say about it. Call us the shmo- mosexuals: gay men who use the same moisturizer for their hands and face, if they use it to “moisturize” at all. Gay men who thrill to the prospect that Oscar, not Felix, might have been the latently gay character in The Odd Couple . Gay men whose daydreams of a wardrobe splurge are set against the efficient, Muzaked quietude of the Men’s Wearhouse on Sixth Avenue in Chelsea. (It’s all in one place!) Joe Shmo, that is, but gay.
Much of the excitement over alpha gays and their “metrosexual” acolytes (and that’s a whole other, deeply irritating topic: the media’s sudden discovery of straight men who dress like gays and spend lots of money) has been generated by America’s most recent gay fetish object, the Bravo reality show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy , where five gay style experts make over a hapless straight guy in their own image. It’s easy to see the Fab Five, as they are called, as America’s little secret gay kaffeeklatsch. The guys you talk to at the hair salon or the antiques store, which is where they belong. Spawned in some estaminet of Akron, patched and peeled in Chelsea, they’re poised to become the lawn jockeys in the “big tent” compassionate conservatism of the Bush Presidency.
The Fab Five and their helpful, helpful attentions to the grooming and manners of straight men: a safe and fun way to accept gays without having to admit they might be something like you-or that they might be people for whom civil rights are not an abstract matter of national policy or history, but a very real and personal question of self-determination or economic freedom.
And what is at stake for the wider culture? An opportunity, really, to do this one right, to admit gays into the full panoply of legal protections without forcing them to go through the minstrelsy phase: a little soft-shoe with your blowout, sir?
Shmomosexuals-untelegenic, too smart by half for the pop-mania version of homosexuality-have to steal a part of this limelight if the culture wars are not to devolve into wan affirmations from marketeers and product-pushers at the cost of rights granted by the government and supported by voters.
Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank is a shmomosexual of the first order. He said he was looking at his 1976 campaign poster as he was speaking to The Observer from his Capitol Hill offices.
“Neatness Isn’t Everything,” the poster offered, beneath a photo of Mr. Frank in his usual state of sartorial dérangement.
“It’s like the equivalent would be Two Guys for the Poor Goys , with Jewish people showing people how to cut corners and save money,” he said of Queer Eye . “It doesn’t have to do with effeminacy, it has to do with superficiality. The notion that gay men have a superior fashion sense is not true, and it’s damaging. It’s a way to marginalize people-you can treat them as pets.”
In other words, it encourages the sentiment: What could they want with gay marriage or adoption or immigration rights for their partners, or the right to teach in our schools or serve in our military, when they’re getting such fabulous publicity for their looks?
“What you’ll get is this segmented acceptance,” Mr. Frank continued. “It makes it possible for people to buy into the stereotype, affirm their admiration for the stereotype, and then give themselves undue credit and say, ‘I’m good on this issue.’ … It is perfectly possible to enjoy that show and say, ‘Look at those clever homosexuals-what they do with hair!’ and not support gays at all.”
Shmomosexuals are difficult to spot-mostly because you’ve never looked at one for very long. You have probably heard their music, bought a drink from them at a bar, read their books or taken their stock picks. One is neither dazzled nor disarmed by the appearance of the shmomosexual: His appearance is simply not the remarkable thing about him. In the shmomosexual, there may be effeminacy of manner and there may not. The shmomosexual is not a gay man who fears being found out; he is just a gay man who fears being unfashionable less than being unimportant.
And they are important. At the risk of alienating some of shmomosexuality’s more high-profile potential boosters, I can point to a shmomosexual pantheon of sorts: Angels in America playwright and activist Tony Kushner; Mark Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the songwriting duo who composed the score of South Park: The Movie and Hairspray the musical and, during the Tony Awards, had a nationally televised live shmomosexual kiss; Richard Greenberg, the playwright who brought Take Me Out to Broadway-all have managed to bring intelligent and broadening images of gay life to the American stage; none have been snagged to mug and mince for televised product endorsements or sell out with an easy and exploitive gay soft-shoe routine.
Novelists like Edmund White and Armistead Maupin, each possessed of a certain understated elegance-they may be retired alpha gays, the young man-killers of their time, but we’ll have them! After all, part of the problem with a gay culture that takes its cues from market research is that nobody is watching you any more after you turn 40. Writer David Sedaris is still young, but he’s been caught in the alpha-gay perplexity himself, and has written disarmingly about the unexpected culture clash that an old grammar-school lisper was surprised to find here in New York City when it came time to be gay in the world. Nathan Lane, who makes megabucks for Broadway as Max Bialystock, the magnificent lowlife in The Producers who hopes to make money on a disaster, could teach us shmomosexuals a thing or two about turning around the musical comedy that the gay-rights movement threatens to become. And if we have to sing a minor role in that show, Harvey Fierstein could lend us his gravelly bellow-a shot of activist espresso snuck into the chai latte of the new gay man that television is teaching Middle America to embrace.
Because, after all, what happens to the little shmomosexuals all over the country when they take an office job and find that they are “just” gay, because they have no mitigating fabulousness to sell their co-workers?
Will the Queer Eye ‘s Fab Five swoop down and tell the shmomosexuals’ parents, their co-workers, their neighbors or their elective representatives that they have the Queer Eye Seal of Approval and should be treated fairly? It would add insult to injury if, when the Fab Five is done with America, metrosexual office workers end up staring down the shmomo in the staff break room with the same steely, menacing glare that already greets us trying to get into Beige to mix with Calvin Klein and the homo jet set here in New York.
(Here I should offer a proviso: Hair-styling, interior design, food connoisseurship, etc., are all perfectly acceptable preoccupations for gay men, just as staying at home with the kids, being an administrative assistant or teaching in school are noble careers for women. As professions, they have historically been kind to us. But as professions, they are infinitely better now that we can choose not to enter them, if we want.)
The danger is that the frenzied pitch of current discourse on gay civil rights owes so much to the ubiquity of gay themes in this summer’s television programming. It’s as if we’re at a giddy engagement party for a girl who hasn’t got a ring yet. And the kind of frothy gay-loving here is not by any means inconsistent with significant rollbacks in the progress of gay civil rights.
Let’s go to the videotape: Aside from Totally Gay , there’s Boy Meets Boy , a good-natured gay-baiting miniseries in which a gay man has to choose a lifemate from among a raft of Abercrombie-Zombie contestants-some of whom are secretly straight! Just to keep things PG-13, if the show’s protagonist, the square-jawed James, selects one of the straight guys for his ultimate mate, the guy gets a cash award of $25,000, instead of the implicit right to crack a baseball bat over James’ head. On Queer Eye for the Straight Guy , of course, five alpha gays tut-tut their way through an appraisal of a poor straight shmo’s wardrobe, food and wine tastes, cultural predilections and home decorating, slapping him into shape to impress the girls; at the end of the show the five sip smart cocktails and coo and cluck at the slick, put-together straight guy they have made into a serviceable lust-object. ” He looks hot! ” one says as they appraise a particularly sloppy artist named Butch on whom they have sprinkled their fairy-dust. ” He is hot! ” another answers back.
With all of this new visibility for gay men, this nationwide consensus on their cuteness and sartorial smarts, it has been difficult to find a prominent gay man-a gay man with any cultural or political power-speaking on television about the serious issues facing gays right now. You can be sure that Paul Smith’s “Q-rating”-for those who get their gay on with the Bravo network instead of The New York Times , he’s the lawyer with the drab glasses and the pinching necktie who successfully argued Lawrence vs. Texas -is a few notches below Carson Kressley’s from Queer Eye . We can no more expect a Barney Frank Volkswagen campaign than a sophisticated rebuttal of the Bush administration’s position on gay marriage in the Jacuzzi on Boy Meets Boy . Sure, there’s Margaret Carlson pulling punches on our behalf on The Capital Gang . But by and large, the watershed moment for gays in national politics is being channeled into … a makeover show.
Score one for “gay culture.” Now the ball is in the “gay rights” court.
There were always plenty of us who saw our affinity with other gay men as largely political-who saw the fact that we were linked culturally mainly as a question of necessity. (It’s not much fun to try to meet a potential date at an Irish pub in midtown.) Queer Eye earned record ratings for the Bravo network the night it first aired. But somewhere outside of Hollywood-which, after all, will drop the show like a rock, or like Ozzy, when the ratings drop-we saw trouble brewing. So recently, it seemed, it had been time to break out the Skyy Vodka and cranberry juice to cheer the Supreme Court’s June 26 ruling in Lawrence v. Texas , which struck down the 17-year-old ruling in Bowers v. Hardwick , which upheld states’ rights to outlaw sodomy. Fearmongers on the right, and their perennially hopeful counterparts on the left, were already talking about the inevitability of gay-marriage rights as a result of the majority’s decision, which went beyond simply striking down the Texas law to offer gays a measure of the same “privacy” afforded women under Roe v. Wade . The decision placed gays’ rights to determine the course of their own lives over the government’s interest in preserving “morality.”
But before long, a Gallup poll found an unexpected reversal in the country’s feelings about gay marriage: In the space of less than two months, popular support for extending legal rights to gay unions had dropped eight percentage points, from 57 percent to 49 percent. Buzz-kill!
President George W. Bush was happy to end the party early. Answering a question from a reporter about homosexuality in a White House press conference on July 30, Mr. Bush told reporters: “I believe in the sanctity of marriage. I believe a marriage is between a man and a woman. And I think we ought to codify that one way or the other, and we’ve got lawyers looking at the best way to do that.”
His statement followed a warning from the Vatican on governments that allow gay marriages: “One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws,” the Vatican statement read.
That such dark moments in the progress of gay causes can co-exist with a happy makeover show in which mincing style experts remake straight men for the benefit of their wives and girlfriends shouldn’t come as a surprise. If the straight world has long been willing to stomach the prospect of a gay man in the local hair salon or department store, it’s another story when it comes to one’s family, school or church. And to the extent that one allows gays into one’s household-Vice President Dick Cheney, after all, has a gay daughter; George and Laura Bush are said to have included gay couples among their guests in the governor’s mansion in Austin, Tex.-it must not be publicly understood as an endorsement of their “lifestyle choice.”
So it follows that what American families watch gays do on-screen, or in the privacy of their own living rooms, apparently is their business. But don’t ask them to support gays’ right to marry or to adopt children-unless you plan to address old habits that run much deeper than a predilection for beige walls or Aqua Net.
It’s somewhere in the haze of the inevitable Queer Eye hangover that the politically significant work has to begin. It’s probably useless to issue a call to arms to my fellow shmomosexuals of the world, to unite and take over; when the paint cans and the tinting solutions are cleared away and America has finished its country paté on little slices of baguette, sometime around the clever nightcap of this media homo-party, Congress will return to work and the right-wing stink tanks will start churning out the propaganda. And there is no hairstyle or stick of Ikea furniture that can protect us then; it’ll mostly be us nursing America’s belligerent hangover, because it’s mostly, in the end, just us who are out there.