Life styles

GAY Impact

Barbara Amiel February 18 1980
Life styles

GAY Impact

Barbara Amiel February 18 1980

GAY Impact

Life styles

Barbara Amiel

It began with visibility. Weeknights around Toronto’s St. Nicholas and St. Joseph Streets in the narrow mews running back from the road, couples could be seen strolling hand in hand—tight trousers, short hair and flamboyant maleness. In Vancouver the lines formed four abreast outside clubs like Thurlow’s with the sign THIS IS A GAY ESTABLISHMENT posted at the door. In urban centres across North America one of the more noticeable social stories of the 1970s became the confident emergence of the homosexual culture.

Some cities made it a matter of official recognition with 1979’s Gay Pride Week in New York and Los Angeles and speeches by vote-conscious mayors to enthusiastic gay crowds estimated as high as 50,000 or more. From demimonde to à la mode in one fell swoop, by the end of the decade gay culture had come into its own with comfy bars like Toronto’s Dudes, bookstores like Glad Day, a sophisticated range of publications (The Body Politic, Christopher Street, Blueboy) and a hedonistic lifestyle exemplified by such sex palaces as New York’s The Mineshaft, with its labyrinth of rooms, each reserved for enthusiasts of a particular sexual technique. Wrote Andrew Kopkind in The Village Voice’s special section last June on gay life: “We are present at the creation of a stage of society and a style of life that is unique in the world we inhabit.”

But if the story of the ’70s was the growing visibility of gay culture, the issue of the ’80s is the growing impact of gay culture on heterosexual life and— more importantly—heterosexual values. In limited areas such as fashion, the impact has always been straightforward, with androgynous designers like

New York’s Halston and Paris’ Yves Saint Laurent long setting the design pace and homosexual watering holes long established as the places to check out next season’s look for both men and women. (Explains Style magazine editor Signy Stephenson: “Gays always seem to wear fashion first. Skintight lycra, baggy pants or the preppy look. I keep my eye on them to spot trends that become popular fashion a season or so after they launch them.”) In other aspects of popular culture as well, there was a directly observable link between what was new and hot in the frenetic homosexual clubs and bars of communities like San Francisco’s Castro Street and what was fashionable in straight society a year or so later.

Disco was the perfect example. “Disco came right out of the gay community, of course,” observes Laud Humphreys, professor of sociology and prominent author of a number of studies on gays “and you can see the current roller-skating fad move from the streets of Santa Monica’s gay community into the mainstream. You could point to all sorts of styles from Perrier water to moustaches to clothing fads like painter pants that have come out of the gay community.”

But as homosexual tastes filtered into society at large, certain fundamental questions followed. Just why there should be a direct relationship between sexual orientation and trend-setting remains mysterious. Says Ed Jackson of Canada’s gay newspaper The Body Politic, “I suppose there is a link between the gay lifestyle which is generally free of family responsibilities and the freedom this allows to be more inventive and daring in taste.” Others had a more political point of view. Explained Dennis Altman, gay essayist, author and professor of political science at the University of Sydney in Australia: “The large gay concentration in the entertainment and media fields puts gays in a position to mould values and opinions—particularly since some of these people are not openly gay.” Some theorists focused on why there was this preponderance of homosexuals in the arts. Suggested Toronto theatre director and homosexual Paul Bettis, co-founder of The Theatre Second Floor and a lecturer in theatre arts at the University of Ottawa: “There have always been strolling players living on the edge of life. Thieves, players or homosexuals, you live outside. You learn to wear masks to survive and to play roles to hide behind. Perhaps this is why the theatre feels so familiar to us.” What

all the theories ultimately shared was a sense, plausible enough, that homosexuality was the little quirk—the pressure of being different—that put an extra edge on otherwise ordinary people.

In a sense, it was a case of homosexuality as a whetting stone.

If any one event gave homosexuality its impetus and cutting edge it was the Stonewall riot of June 27,1969. On that summer night New York police went out to raid an after-hours gay bar called Stonewall Inn and, for some unaccountable reason, instead of meekly filing into police wagons, the patrons decided to barricade the doors. Three nights of street demonstrations followed and from those beginnings came the gay rights movement. “The critical incident,” says Barry Adam, professor of sociology at University of Windsor, “was the unrest of the ’60s with blacks and women demanding rights. Out of this came Stonewall.” With numbers and organization came strength—both economic strength and the political clout of a pressure group. The cultural impact was inevitable. Businessmen discovered the gay market. Publishers began bringing out books aimed at gays including a special series at St. Martin’s Press headed up by editor-author Michael Denneny.

With a visible gay culture came the distinctive look of gay-influenced restaurants and boutiques. Pinning down the gay quality was often difficult—it had something to do with the “hectic eclectic” clutter of ferns and 1940s photographs and retro design and, most of all, with the element of surprise. It was influenced by the pop art that was so dominated by gay artists like Andy Warhol and David Hockney. It was influenced by “camp,” with its love of the outrageous, which could transform the really awful into the almost marvelous, § which could adore indiscriminately the twinkling red shoes of Judy Garland in Oz and the busbies of the grenadier guards; camp was a quality that both distanced and protected its followers from reality—precious, whimsical and stagey. It was this gay-camp-pop sensibility with its juxtaposition of everything with peacock feathers or fern that determined the “feel” of whole areas like Toronto’s newly reclaimed Queen Street. Whether the areas were actually designed by gays or decorated by them was irrelevant. The influence of gayinspired pop art was there and the ambience drew gays. “Going down to Queen Street,” said director Paul Bettis, “is like going to a friend’s or wandering onstage.”

But the greatest effect of the gay rights movement was to give homosexual themes a fashionable tinge. Ten years earlier, gay themes were either satirical, as in Mart Crowley’s 1968 play, The Boys in the Band, or sensa-

tional—which accounted for the Variety headline of January, 1969, HOMO ’N’ LESBO FILMS AT PEAK—DEVIATE THEME NOW BOX OFFICE referring to a spate of movies ( The Killing of Sister George, The Fox, The Sergeant) about the dreadful things that happen to people with sexual maladjustments. It took 1979 to add earnest homosexual themes to the mainstream. In theatre this resulted in the dubious-achievement, mixed-reviewed Bent, the Broadway play that uses Dachau concentration camp as a setting for a love story between two homosexuals restricted to making love through verbal play.

CBC Radio weighed in with six hours of programming, on the high-toned FM series Ideas, titled Being Gay—whose PhD seriousness underlined for some listeners the irony of the nomenclature “gay.” (Still, out of the several hundred letters the program received, fewer than a dozen complained about the

choice of homosexuality as a suitable topic. “Most people,” says program assistant Susan Crammond, “congratulated us on dealing so sensitively with the subject and wanted to know even more about homosexual lives and values.”)

“Gay themes are really terrific,” echoed one Hollywood television producer. “We’d just done a couple of handicapped shows and then we got into this whole gay problem thing. Everyone was looking for scripts with a sensitive gay treatment.” Over at MTM productions, producer Gary Goldberg had come up with The Last Resort, another sophisticated sitcom in the Mary Tyler Moore tradition. In an episode called Girlfriends, a lesbian character is introduced. “We’d done a lot of controversial shows,” explained Goldberg. “We had a

nun show where one of our characters falls in love with a nun and they have a relationship—CBS showed that to concerned clergy—and then we did the gay show and CBS had gay groups take a look at it.” The matter-of-fact reference to having scripts vetted by committees of special-interest groups indicated the new authority such themes had. Now that homosexuality had progressed from an abomination to a sacred cow, the purveyors of mass culture seem as intimidated by it as they once were by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

As the topic of homosexuality received more and more currency in entertainment and media circles—with novels like Marie-Claire Blais’s Nights in the Underground concentrating solely on a lesbian theme—it almost

seemed as though being homosexual was like being a hemophiliac, a sign of belonging to some specially sensitive elite. “There is a feeling of being part of a very special group,” says editor Denneny, “of having a sensibility that, well, in the end reflects the Mart Crowley line, ‘It takes a fairy to make things pretty.’ ” Author Laud Humphreys took it one step further: “I think the gay sensibility fosters creativity and innovation. If you look at the people who are signpost people around whom culture takes its curves, they are nearly always gay.” Certainly it appeared that every biogra-

pher (of Montgomery Clift and Tyrone Power) and not a few autobiographers and essayists (Christopher Isherwood, Charles Reich, Rod McKuen) were keen to reveal homosexual identities. For the most part this reflected the prurience of the mainstream culture whose insatiable appetite for gossip and sexual detail had long been a staple of best-seller lists. It also confirmed that homosexuality, for all its visibility, was still pretty much a man-bites-dog syndrome — just far enough removed from general experience to make it newsworthy.

But while most people could come to terms with the influence of gay life on style, unhappiness began to surface over the question of just how much homosexual values were influencing society. Combative American intellectual Norman Podhoretz raised the question in 1977 of a link between some attitudes of homosexuality and hostility to American middle-class values. Drawing on the writings of the homosexual intelligentsia from the 1920s to current works of gay authors Gore Vidal, James Baldwin and Allen Ginsberg, Podhoretz drew attention to what he saw as “a generalized contempt for middle-class or indeed any kind of heterosexual adult life.” Social critic Samuel McCracken, assistant to the president of Boston University, took aim at what he viewed as the total absence of any critical analysis in the spate of writing on homosexual culture. The uncritical acceptance of such phenomena as the cruising promiscuity, the advocacy of “boylove,” sado-masochism and the “refusal [of social scientists] to draw the line,” argued McCracken, jeopardized some of society’s basic values of personal morality.

The values attributed to homosexual influence were familiar: narcissism, self-absorption and the supremacy of personal gratification—the very qualities that Tom Wolfe had pinned on the ’70s’ Me Generation. There was little argument about their existence from the gay community—only a slightly different focus. As Michael Denneny put it, “Self-reliance and self-realization are the major values of gay life.” Nor was there much coyness about random, impersonal sex. “It’s the most efficient way to deal with sexual needs,” claimed University of Toronto associate professor of sociology John Alan Lee, author of Getting Sex. “I don’t think anyone is monogomous anymore,” mused Denneny cautiously. “We’re inventing new models so that serious relationships can exist in the framework of casual sex—if such generalizations can be made.” Explained Toronto psychiatrist Andrew Malcolm: “It makes sense for homosexuals to think in these immediate terms when the use they are inclined to make of their biology precludes a future commitment to children.”

It is clear that the gay life, with its superannuated hedonism, has raised troubling questions about the commitment of its followers to such traditional values as a stable society with some interest in its own future. Some spillover of homosexual influences into heterosexual culture have already been seen. The old Continental Baths in New York, in which gay men steamed and enjoyed the anonymous pleasure of orgy rooms and a handful of sexual partners a night, have today become Plato’s Re-

treat—the heterosexual swingers’ paradise with rooms of mattresses and naked couples frolicking about in endless combinations. But it is far more questionable to blame the changes in the general moral climate to homosexual influence.

The truth is that society itself was changing long before the emergence of the homosexual culture. The contraceptive pill, the increased role of the state in taking care of the infirm or the elderly and the technological advances that made it possible for women to leave the family and go to work, all started heterosexual culture moving in the direction of gay values.

As Denneny put it, “One of the reasons society is looking at gays’ way of coping with fidelity and casual relationships is that the two-career heterosexual marriage faces a lot of the same problems as a gay relationship.”

The qualities of courage, self-sacrifice for the future and value on procreation, the current decline of which Podhoretz mourns, have been increasingly viewed as at best tedious and at worst destructive. They survived longest in pop culture—in the movies of John Wayne or James Bond until even Bond became self-deprecating. Wayne died before he could.

It is not that homosexuals changed society’s fundamental beliefs. The general acceptance of gay culture is a signal that our fundamental beliefs have been changing. And, in a classic pattern, the emerging culture is encouraged and reinforced by the very opportunity to come above ground. Meanwhile the total “contempt for middle-class values” that is seen in the philosophy of many homosexual intelligentsia might well be attenuated if and when heterosexual society decides to tolerate homosexuality fully. When two sides are opposed to one another, there is a tendency to throw out all the values of the opponent.

Paula Monk, 29, a knitwear designer and illustrator, and her husband, advertising executive Howard Alstad, 35, enjoy Japanese restaurants, their chic midtown Toronto townhouse with its print-decorated walls, and a mobile existence which allows Paula to turn thumbs down on nine-to-five work and Howard to quit his last job in search of a more challenging agency. Nearby, in another chic townhouse, a 45-year-old criminal lawyer and homosexual enjoys his original art collection—a large Rothko hangs on the upstairs drawingroom wall—and the mobility that enables him to take several holidays abroad each year. The lifestyles and values are nearly identical. All that separates them at this point is that, unlike Paula and Howard, the lawyer cannot yet bring himself to reveal his name.