by CJ Barnes
The year is 2006. Gay marriage is not yet legal. Online dating hasn’t quite taken off; most exchanges on the web take place on seedy online chat groups, thus a reliance on night life still exists for men to meet other men. PrEP, an anti-HIV/AIDS medication, will not be FDA approved for another 6 years. And risk of infection runs high in a community still haunted by AIDS. Brokeback Mountain collects six Oscar nominations and wins three. However, it loses Best Picture in one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history, which whispers say is because Academy voters aren’t comfortable with a gay Best Picture.
Across the Atlantic, a young Connor Barnes plays with his toys. He doesn’t know it yet, but he’s gay. In 2006 the mainstream still considers being gay a taboo, but when Connor comes into his own thirteen years later, gay will be the mainstream. He will not experience much death in his youth, though he will bear witness to a different kind of decay. He will hear memories of community and secrecy from his forefathers, the few that remain, and when he looks around at his assimilated world, he’ll ask “what happened?” At the cost of the homo cultural assimilation to come, the boy will feel lost, searching for identity. For although the straights will accept the “good” parts of gay culture for their own entertainment: glitter, camp, and death drops, they will leave the dark underbelly of sex, drugs, and loneliness, causing a deterioration of a culture. But that is only the future. For now, in 2006, law professor Kenji Yoshino sits down to write his essay The Pressure to Cover, which begins –
“When I began teaching at Yale Law School in 1998, a friend spoke to me frankly. ‘You’ll have a better chance at tenure,’ he said, ‘if you’re a homosexual professional than if you’re a professional homosexual.’”
Yoshino bears a secret. Having a secret does not make Yoshino unique, for many people keep myriad secrets. What sets Yoshino apart from other secret keepers is his desire to share his with the rest of his world, for this secret is not a small, lingering shame. Yoshino’s secret is his truth. Within this academic man, there is a creature that lurks beneath the surface. One man, two beings, living in relation to a single truth. There is the life of homosexual professional. The person who acts straight, ie. masculine, sports-loving and beer-drinking. Although Yoshino admits some of this nature comes naturally to him, much of it does not. It is the handpicks characteristics, chosen specifically to assimilate to a social norm, a few words from an entire lexicon.
Even in a liberal institution like Yale, different is still dangerous. On the surface, his race prohibits his conformity to mainstream notions of professionalism: “white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant”, so his must draw upon a forth: straight. However deep down, underneath the façade breathes another entity. Large, and unstudied, within him lies the professional homosexual, hidden and yearning for release. “What bothered me was the felt need to mute my passion for gay subjects, people, culture” (2006).
Truth is not an easy thing for anyone to accept. Yoshino has seen the outcomes of those who tried living freely. The film projector of his mind spins. The reel, filled with memories, flickers as it tells the stories of truths revealed and careers destroyed. Case study: Robin Shahar, lesbian. Shahar has pursued a career with some success. She has the beginnings of a career lined up at the Georgia Department of Law, where she previously worked as a law student. And she has love. The subject of her affection is another woman. They wed and honeymoon in Greece, but good news travels quickly and can change to bad just as fast. After circulating through the work place, the news reaches the top of command, Michael Bowers, a homophobe (because anyone who defends sodomy laws must be). Shahar’s ambitions turn to ash as she loses her job. And although in court the blame is placed on her conduct, the truth of homophobia emits its foul odor from underneath the testimony.
That’s the end of Shahar’s story. In the mainstream, marriage is a time of celebration, as long as the two hearts becoming one belong to two different sexes. Homosexuality is known but not known. Its existence is noted but is asked to exist elsewhere, on the periphery, outside of work, outside of any form of visible life. In its exile homosexuality is forced to grow by itself as a community, as a culture. Yoshino does not want who he is to live in exile anymore. He dreams of an America where assimilation shifts the definition of mainstream to be no longer “White Anglo-Saxon, Protestant” (Yoshino 2006) and straight but something far more diverse. No longer should people feel the pressure to cover but instead ought to feel welcomed by the realm of acceptability that once condemned them. Assimilation is when a minority joins the majority – resulting in the erasure of a culture. However, what if the process is reversed? The majority joins the minority, integrating without assimilating, and a culture is then shared.
The year is 2019. Gay marriage is legal. The first openly gay presidential candidate runs for election. Grindr has all but eliminated the need to leave the house for sex, now men hide behind a screen to meet, and hold far higher standards then they ought to. PrEP has abated fears of HIV transmission; thus condoms become a precaution, not an essential. Moonlight, the story of a gay, Black man won the Best Picture Oscar two years ago. And ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ a show about drag queens, enters its twelfth season (the premiere of season 13, which aired after this essay was first written, is the most watched episode in its thirteen-season-run). Gay culture no longer hides from the mainstream. It constitutes the mainstream.
Connor Barnes is now nineteen years old. Everyone says he’s special. He hates being told this because he knows it’s not true. He does, however, know he is gay. And has known for five years. Connor has known intimacy, but never connection. Behind closed doors, the nineteen-year-old boy spends a lot of time with older men (some who may contain a little too much fondness for youth), not because he particularly wants to, but they want him, and he wants to be wanted. He feels sorry for the old men. He knows they did not have the same life as he did. To be gay and out at nineteen now is a recent progression only members of Generation Z get to enjoy1 the first generation to grow up with acceptance2 as vogue. Those of the mainstream have started accepting what they once proclaimed unacceptable. More than accept – they’ve embraced the exiled, and rather than try to have the exiled infiltrate the mainstream, the mainstream infiltrate theirs. – for Connor, this infiltrated, perverted culture is all he’s ever known.
On Wednesday nights, Connor likes to see theatre. He worries about being culturally unaware and plain boring as a person, so he hopes live entertainment will bring some interest to his existence. One night, out of impulse, he bought a ticket for The Inheritance, by Matthew Lopez. The play, a re-telling of Howard’s End, by E.M. Forster, presents different generations of gay men interacting with each other with the focus on a millennial couple. It premiered on the West End and was making quite a splash on Broadway in previews. Connor buys the ticket, goes to the theatre, watches it, and loves it. Weeks after viewing it, the play remains in his head, swirling around as he ponders its deeper meaning. And one line, in particular, sticks out. Eric Glass, the millennial protagonist (the generation who saw acceptance come in their twenties or so) says at a birthday brunch with his friends, “You know what I miss? I miss the feeling that being gay was like being a member of a secret club” (2:2). This line perplexes Connor, has perplexed him since the words entered his ears. The past is familiar in a school-book sort of way. He knows the gay community built itself out of exile, to form a new family when people’s own wouldn’t accept them, but in a world of acceptance, a longing to return to secrecy seems to be nostalgia misplaced. Yoshino, who lives under similar circumstances to the protagonist of the play, writes in his essay, “I have wanted with any consistency is the freedom to be who I am” (2006). In order to be free there can be no secrets. Secrets constrain and by definition hide. In order to be free as Yoshino wants to be there can be no more secrets, as secrecy keeps others in ignorance and ignorance is what causes bigotry towards homosexuals to begin with. What has happened between Yoshino of then and the characters of now (or at least closer to now) that garners such opposing views of what gay acceptence looks likes?
What about time? Yoshino wrote his essay in 2006 when being gay was still being a member of that secret club. Yoshino is a professor, not a fortune-teller, he wasn’t able to see what the world would become. The Inheritance and its characters live in 2019 where both the play and its player speak with hindsight. Perhaps as cultures blend, the integration of gay culture into the mainstream is less of a peace mission and more of a hijack. Less to observe what they have missed out on for so many years, but to steal what isn’t theirs for their own entertainment, and to leave the remains with a community left to die.
Connor cannot watch Rupaul’s Drag Race anymore. The show itself runs strong, entering its twelfth season, fifth All-Star, and starting international equivalents in the UK, Thailand, Canada, and Australia. Although the show is a commercial success, to Connor it’s a shadow of its former self. He began watching the show before it was the juggernaut it was to be. When people still weren’t sure exactly what it was and the concept of drag queens competing for a cash prize seemed low-brow. Its popularity and Connor’s affection towards the show share an inverse relationship. As it gains more and more viewers from the straight population, the boy loses more and more interest in what the show has to offer, or rather the show seems to lose interest in itself, in what it has to offer the members of its own culture. For a long time, Connor assumed his lost passion for the show was a natural change. To use Yoshino’s words, “[He’s] just moved on to other interests” (2006). Though after Connor watches The Inheritance, he considers that there may be more to it. As the straight population fills a fanbase for a show once made for gays, the target audience shifts. Expectations, taken from a product altered because of and based on the tourists, become planted in the tourists’ minds. Connor was in a secret club spoken about by Eric Glass, but was too young to realize. Now in his age of enlightenment, the club has disbanded, and Connor falls victim to false expectations.
Connor’s friends tell him he needs to dress better. If his clothes were to become more stylized, tighter, conspicuous, his aura will change. This confuses him. He looks at the boys his friends fawn over as they pass in the dining hall. He sees no difference between what they wear and what he wears: Sweat pants, plain shirts, and plaid. Yet for these boys the lack of fashion is considered sexy while for him it’s considered unattractive. What is the difference between these straight boys and this gay one? Other times, Connor is often asked why he doesn’t paint his nails and if he’s ever considered doing drag. At first, he overlooked and ignored these questions but now they start to bother him. He concludes these questions relate to the popularity to Drag Race, the show which presents, quite frankly, a two-dimensional view on what it means to be gay. With men dressing up as women who lip-sync against each other, this must be the “professional homosexual” Yoshino was talking about. Representation is important in all aspects of the spectrum of gay identity, but what television presents is not a spectrum. It presents stereotypes the mainstream eats up, because after years of ridicule and oppression, the execs have come to the conclusion these professional homosexuals are entertaining and people like to be entertained. So now, the straight population (women in particular) flood gay-bars – a once private place for gay men to find peace on the weekend from heteronormativity – to seek pleasure from the stereotypes portrayed on TV. As Drag Race season 10 contestant, Miz Cracker puts it in an article for Slate Magazine “More and more often, however, straight women are appearing in gay spaces in the way white downtown folks pop up to Harlem in the short stories of Langston Hughes—as enthusiastic but naïve, other-izing, and sometimes disruptive tourists” (2015). And this is where the disintegration of gay culture begins. And by the time Connor sees it, the culture lies on its deathbed, a shadow of its former self.
Connor grew up with the notion that reverse assimilation was good because it was the only path to acceptance. Now Connor feels robbed. Robbed of his right to find his identity in a world his to inherent, free of conformity and unfair expectations, free of the mainstream. Connor does not have that ability anymore. Being the first generation to grow up with acceptance means people thinking observations are the same as experience. Because a person sees a professional homosexual on the television, it equates to the real experience of being just a homosexual. As the TV puts it, being a homosexual is camp, glitter, death-drops and sass. Gay means more than happy, and more than homosexual. Connor knows this, he’s experienced it. Gay is dark. Gay means HIV scares to face alone, and after still feeling the pressures to bareback (unsafe sex). Gay means being thin and still not fitting the expectations of youth set by digital porn, convincing yourself you’re fat and developing an eating disorder. It means listening to female friends say they’re kinky because they like hands on their necks without knowing you’ve done far, far worse- like a Robert Mapplethorpe photo. It means to sleep with old men as a rite of passage, to sensualize rape, to know G&T does not refer to gin and tonic. This is also gay culture. The mainstream doesn’t want this, it does not want to know it. Because of that, Connor is left to scavenge on his own for familiarity, for someone to understand his traumas and to validate his experiences but he can’t. All the straights only know happiness, and Connor can’t relate to the other homosexuals his age because being the first assimilated generation means there is no struggle to bind them together unlike The Lavender Scare during McCarthyism, Stonewall in 1969, or the AIDS crisis, which did more than wipe out a generation. Connor has been robbed twice. Once of his chance to become a human being without influence from outsiders, and the other of having fore-fathers to look up to. The effects of AIDS ripple through the following generations. The boy has met shells of the plague, men haunted from ghosts of the past. Connor “wonder[s] what his life would be like if he had not been robbed of a generation of mentors, of poets, of friends, and, perhaps even lovers” (Lopez 3:2). Perhaps Connor would feel not so alone. Perhaps he would feel free. Perhaps he’d feel complete.
Connor finds fault with Yoshino. Yoshino spends too much time focusing on the relationship between the minority and the mainstream. It’s hard not to, the two will always co exist, but Connor has come to the conclusion it should stop at that. In 2006, Yoshino had no way of fore-telling what acceptance would do but now in 2019 Connor loses himself in a pool of memories and falsities. Yoshino had an idea of a utopia; Connor lives in a dystopia. Different will always be different. We should embrace that. Instead, they pretend different is the same, and steal what they like from a culture, leaving those who don’t fit their shallow perceptions to die. Connor lives in a different epidemic, the disease he faces in inauthenticity. He wishes the straights would leave his community. Just for now. Just enough time for him to experience what it means to be gay free of outside influence, enough time to find himself. Yoshino says, “The aspiration of civil rights has always been to permit people to pursue their human flourishing without limitations based on bias” (2006), but under the blanket of unbiased acceptance, Connor can’t achieve this with reverse assimilation. What he wants is for the straights and the gays to co-exist but for the majority to watch from a distance. Let the gay community heal from years of hatred and death because he doesn’t think it fully has. When the mainstream is willing to recognize the lived reality of gay life, not its amusing and unthreatening caricature, then the healing process will be complete. But right now, the wounds are still fresh, and the spirits are still new.
1 To be clear, not everyone in Generation Z gets to enjoy the luxury of coming out. In many parts of the U.S.A, rampant homophobia still rages. In the US and the world, open homosexuality still has deadly consequences at the hands of the government or neighbors. Also, while many millennials may have come out in their teens, Generation Z is simply more associated with being openly queer because of the LGBT+ advancements made in their youth.
2 By equality, it is meant lawful equality such as equal marriage, hate crime laws etc. Institutional and interpersonal bigotry remains a very real thing.
Works Cited –
Cracker, Miz. “Why Do Straight Women Behave So Horribly in Gay Bars?” Slate Magazine, Slate, 13 Aug. 2015, https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/08/should-straight-women-go-to-gay-bars a-drag-queen-reports-on-the-lady-invasion.html.
Lopez, Matthew. Inheritance. Faber & Faber, Incorporated, 2019.
Yoshino, Kenji. “The Pressure to Cover.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 Jan. 2006, https://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/magazine/the-pressure-to-cover.ht