Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Getty Images, Thinkstock, Shutterstock, Wikimedia Creative Commons.

What Was Gay?

In an increasingly accepting world, homosexual men are all too eager to leave their campy, cruising past behind. But the price of equality shouldn’t be conformity.

That’s Gay

“You know,” observed a recent dinner guest, glancing around our living room between sips of his digestif, “there are a lot of strong women in this apartment.”

I follow his gaze toward the massive tangerine-on-yellow She-Ra painting that anchors one end of the room—a tough lady if there ever was one. Then, over to the poster for Pedro Almodóvar’s Todo Sobre Mi Madre—the madre here a primary-colored, Picasso-lite Cecilia Roth—on the opposite wall. The superhero and super-mom, their eyes locked, seem unimpressed with present company. Broadening the scan, I pass over photographed gypsies, lithographic courtesans, cartooned drag queens, and a bowler-hatted Grace Jones who looks irritated, probably because she still doesn’t have a frame. From the coffee table, Kylie Minogue, Yoko Ono, and a legendary ballroom voguer all stare up from their book covers with varying degrees of attitude.

“Well,” I shrug, “the motif wasn’t intentional … but you did know we’re gay, right?”

“The apartment treated as a stage set—dramatically lit, designed to be taken in all at once and from the entrance,” Edmund White wrote in his road-trip survey of American gay life in the late 1970s, “remains a gay apartment, whether the décor is high camp or high tech, cluttered comfort or austere emptiness.” Less than a decade later, the writer and director Neil Bartlett observed of English gay spaces: “Our rooms are not decorated to announce our occupation or our family status; they are not really ‘domestic’ interiors. They need reflect nothing but the tastes of their owner, the pleasure he takes in his life, his ability to choose and arrange his possessions.” Fast-forward three more decades and find my partner and me making a home together, filling it full of our possessions—two-dimensional divas—which we dramatically light when friends are expected.

Implicit in the notion that an apartment like mine can “be gay”—and that you, despite any politically correct training against saying so, could easily recognize it as such—is an understanding of gayness as something more than a basic sexual orientation. The concept of a “gay apartment,” like “gay literature” or “gay mannerisms,” suggests that gayness also comprises a set of markers or values or practices that manifest themselves in the spaces and objects and relationships that gay men create. (While cultural gayness, as I’ll try to define it here, is not the exclusive province of men, their history as its most visible advocates will necessarily bias this piece.) If you believe White and Bartlett as I do, gayness may be found not just in whom you sleep with, but also, perhaps, in the sort of sheets you insist on sleeping between.

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.”

However, any serious “post-gay” triumphalism would seem a touch premature. For one thing, folks on the ground are not as uninterested in gay cultural practice as the “gay culture is dying” headlines suggest. Enthusiastic audiences tune in to RuPaul’s Drag Race for lessons in a certain school of gay “herstory” on a weekly basis, and homos of a less glittery make clamored to HBO’s Looking in a desperate search for images of “real gay life”—implying that it must indeed be distinct from the straight life portrayed on other programs. And politically, there’s a sense in which minimizing gay difference now, right at the moment when the majority of Americans are actively grappling with it, amounts to a cop-out: “Americans are uniquely hasty to assert a ‘post-’ right before we approach the finish line,” Suzanna Walters notes in The Tolerance Trap, “effectively shutting off the real and substantive public debate needed for that final push.”

Instead of “post,” a more accurate diagnosis of our moment might be schismatic. History shows that the divide between gays who reject any cultural embroidery on their sexual orientation and those who spend evenings hand-stitching it has been around since homosexuality, as a human category, was invented. But the ascendancy of the former position, tied as it has been to the civil rights achievements of the past 20 years, has left us culture queens so embattled that a conscious uncoupling is starting to sound like a good idea. A “gaybro” doesn’t want to camp it up with a “stereotype” like me? Fine—it was never fair to assume that he should (or could) anyway. Nate Silver wants to identify as “sexually gay but ethnically straight”? Great. Let’s make that split an option for everyone.

To Silver’s credit, the notion of gayness as an “ethnicity” that one might choose to invest in or not is actually very useful if schism is your goal. On a post about super-gay Internet sensation Brendan Jordan, the wonderfully flamboyant young queen who rose to fame last year for voguing in the background of a local news report, a Slate commenter offered a similar sentiment: “One of the reasons I so dislike identifying myself as a gay man,” he wrote, “is that I don’t want people to hear that word, gay, and link me in their mind to someone with a personality and manner like this kid or, say, a Jack McFarland. Homosexual actually feels more comfortable to me than gay.”

The clarity of this statement is striking. The commenter recognizes that he—like a huge swath of “gay” men—is homosexual, but he is not, in fact, gay, especially if that latter word is exemplified in the cultural practices of the flaming queen from Will & Grace. It would be easy to wave this off as so much internalized homophobia (or indeed, semantic quibbling), but I favor another path: Let’s take Silver and the commenter at their word. Let’s listen to How to Be Gay author David Halperin when he argues that “it is not enough for a man to be homosexual in order to be gay.” Let’s stop forcing gayness on the homos and acknowledge that gay cultural practice is something that must be chosen, cultivated, and celebrated.

The trouble is, if we sever the presumptive tie between homos and gayness, we may soon find ourselves in a situation where there’s no one left who is interested in learning how to be gay. Hence the was in this article’s headline. The past tense seems only appropriate when gayness’s dominance as the primary cultural expression of homosexuality in the West is in such rapid decline. If we really are heading toward Altman’s vision of the homosexual who is truly defined by only his sexual orientation and nothing more, then it’s only right to treat gayness as an endangered artifact, a sort of fading native language to study and preserve while we still can. And really, maybe a clear-eyed look at what gayness has been is the best way to figure out what it, or at least some parts of it, could be in the future—and whom, beyond homosexuals, it could be for.

To do that, we’ll have to look back to the origins of gayness among the urban fairies and queers at the turn of the 20th century, trace how gayness evolved alongside homosexuals and their political movements over the following decades, and finally, reflect on the useful practices we can distill from it today. Armed with that context, we’ll be well-prepared to understand not only how to be gay, but also why some of us might want to continue, in brazen defiance of fashion, to try.

What Gay Was

“There is a very specific gay sense of history in which nothing really happens until such time as you identify yourself as a gay man.”

In all my years of attempting to make sense of this thing called gayness—the long conversations with gay friends and lovers and elders, the lingering in gay bars and gayborhoods around the world, the self-syllabizing of classic camp films and serious gay literature, the amassing of a considerable library of critical and academic writing on the subject—few lines have felt as correct to me as this one. Neil Bartlett wrote it in Who Was That Man?, his obsessive meditation on Oscar Wilde and gay identity, as part of his effort to stalk Wilde’s influence on gayness across the decades and into his own London of the mid-1980s. But it’s also weirdly true to my experience of becoming gay just after my 19th birthday in the fall of 2006.

It went like this: A guy in my freshman class with whom I’d been friendly online invited me to his dorm—I was not out as a homo even to myself yet, not really, but he could tell. After some hemming and hawing on my part and cajoling on his, we had sex. I walked out of the dorm and onto the quad. It was a clear, brisk night, the moon impressively bright for the light-polluted New York sky. I sat on a bench and reflected on the encounter. I liked the sex, definitely, and had long suspected guys did it for me. But more than that, I liked the stuff around the sex. I liked that while he wasn’t what I’d now call “femme,” he wasn’t super butch either—it made it easier to relax into my own in-betweenness. I liked that he wore a sweet cologne and that he played Imogen Heap while we were making out. I liked that he was unabashedly into Britney Spears and that he wanted to teach me how to style my hair with product. In other words, I liked the gay filigree about him as much as the homosexual core. So right there, on that concrete bench, I decided that I was like him: I was gay, too—or at least I wanted to be. I’d start telling certain people so within the week, and I’d have my first gay friends and boyfriend within a month.

Later, I came to a curious realization about that moment: I have a hard, almost impossible time remembering what I was like before it. I mean this quite literally—I know that I existed before gay, that I had a pretty great childhood and adolescence in upstate South Carolina. But that guy—the nerdy, vaguely effeminate band geek with the bad hair—seems like a stranger to me now, or like a character from a movie I haven’t seen in years. He’s vaguely there, but his psychology and motivations, his desires and worries, are like faded marks on a poorly erased whiteboard. Apparently, Bartlett is right: Nothing really happened until such time as I identified myself as a gay man.

This, of course, is rather strange. But I suspect it’s a characteristic experience for those homos who, after assuming the mantle of cultural gayness, become so fixated on understanding its meaning that their lives are in turn defined by the quest. Perhaps this is evidence of the narcissism that psychiatry once attributed to “inversion,” that old term for our problem. Or perhaps it’s just the result of desperately, even naively wanting one’s difference to count for something. In any case, even a day in the archives of gay identity will prove one thing: From the moment we understood ourselves to be a thing, we have been obsessed with defining what that thing means.

Or at least some of us have been. One of George Chauncey’s interviewees in Gay New York, his seminal history of urban gay life from 1890–1940, perfectly captures the deep-seated division between gays and homosexuals: “For some people it was your whole life, your soul. For others it was what you did on the weekend.” It’s the former group who has traditionally acted as gayness’s monks, recording, interpreting, and transmitting, as Chauncey puts it, a “distinctive culture with its own language and customs, its own traditions and folk histories, its own heroes and heroines.”

But why did that culture develop in the first place? It’s not obvious that a shared sexual attraction or behavior should be a foundation firm enough upon which to construct a shared cultural practice. Indeed, same-sex sex is endemic to the human species (among others), and yet cultural gayness as we understand it now only really emerges in a serious way at the close of the 19th century. (While there were certainly earlier figures who exhibited behaviors like drag that read as “gay” to us now, at the time their pioneering work was attributed to regular criminality rather than tied to a coherent identity.) What changed? As historians of sexuality, most influentially Michel Foucault, have argued, it’s in the mid-to-late 1800s that medical, psychiatric, and legal authorities elaborate sex between men, encounters that would have previously been viewed as discrete acts of “sodomy,” into a type of person: the homosexual.

This naming was a powerful thing. Can you imagine being told by society that the fact that you enjoy getting off with other gentlemen now suddenly means you are an entirely different kind of person—a person who must be monitored and theorized and maybe cured or perhaps just tolerated—from the gentleman over there who exclusively (he says) gets off with ladies? How would you react to such a sudden paradigm shift?

Three natural responses come (and came) to mind. The first is to embrace the label as an accurate description of your malady and seek treatment, whether medical or spiritual. The second is to reject the label—or accept it, but insist that it only describes a minor sexual deviation that really shouldn’t matter that much. The third is to hijack the label, to revel in your difference and use the newfound clarity and sense of community (so there are others like me!) to do something interesting with it. This last option (and its friction with the others) is, ultimately, where gayness comes from.

As Chauncey and other historians have shown, it was almost as soon as homosexuals had a name for themselves that they started elaborating a “folklore” or “folk anthropology” to go with it. This makes perfect sense: Though gays wouldn’t explicitly use the concept until after Stonewall, it’s clear from our contemporary perspective that they were already acting like a “quasi-ethnic group” in certain urban centers in the early 20th century. Ethnic groups like Jews or Polynesians are ostensibly defined by their blood, but ethnicity also suggests a shared history and set of cultural traditions; homosexuals may or may not share genes, but they would certainly need some of that latter stuff if they wanted to make anything of the otherwise negative category imposed on them by society.  

But how do you establish traditions for an ethnic group that has just been invented? One option, which some homosexuals took and still take, is to imagine gayness as a sort of mystical essence that transcends space and time such that you and Alexander the Great could totally gossip about boys. Scouring the past for recognition and pedigree this way can be fun, but it’s fundamentally ahistorical. A less shaky method is to look at the materials available in your own moment and make use of those. Accounting for the affiliation between early homosexuals and certain cultural modes is a somewhat speculative endeavor, and one riddled with caveats, chief among them that gayness as I’m hunting it here is largely a British/American animal with a studied French accent. (Same-sex attraction is a cross-cultural phenomenon, but “classical” gayness feels distinctly Euro—a further argument for its divorce from basic homosexuality.) Asides aside, it’s not surprising that then-contemporaneous sensibilities and cultural movements like aestheticism and dandyism were appropriated and refined by many homosexuals with gusto. These were considered by much of the conservative mainstream to be transgressive, awry, unnatural, and utterly modern—all adjectives equally applicable to homosexuals. Like attracts like.

And it helped that these and other qualities were embodied by early homosexual icons like Oscar Wilde, whose sensational trial for “gross indecency” in 1895 represented a sort of lurid press conference for the emerging ethnic group. While it’s an exaggeration to attribute all of gayness to Wilde and his demimonde, it’s undeniable that certain tropes—attention to detail, an embrace of decadence, attentiveness to self-presentation, a critical pose toward the mainstream both serious and playful—crystallized under his cool gaze.

If gayness was going to spread and thrive beyond its somewhat rarified origins, it would need emissaries—and it found them in cities like New York in the “fairies,” the unapologetically effeminate, bold street creatures who were, as Chauncey puts it, “the most visible representatives of gay life and played a more central role in the gay world in the prewar years than they do now.” While less-obvious homosexuals—generally identified at the time as “queers” as part of a rich pre–World War II menagerie that comprised “trade” (straight or straight-acting but sexually willing men we now call “masc bros”), “queens,” and other types—bristled at the fairy’s flamboyance, she (the feminine pronoun feels appropriate) was undeniably useful in her capacity as priestess of gay culture. She was the life force behind the infamous, well-attended New York drag balls of the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s, which took place in spaces around the city ranging from dives to Webster Hall and which Chauncey characterizes as spaces of solidarity: “Many queer-identified men were appalled by the dominant public image of homosexuals created by the audacious behavior of fairies on the streets, of course,” he writes. “[However], in the gay cultural space the balls created, queers could acknowledge their affinity, however contested, with the fairies in a culture in which all gay men were stigmatized as non-men, and they often applauded the audacity and skill of the ‘queens.’ ”

These “gay cultural spaces” where queers and fairies (and hip straight onlookers) mixed were critical because, as you might have guessed, the main problem with thinking of gay cultural practice within an ethnic model is the issue of transmission. You learn how to be Jewish from your family; in most cases, your parents cannot teach you how to be gay. A curious homosexual new to the city would need this sort of experience or similar entrée—usually facilitated by another gay man, perhaps a first lover—in order to begin to learn the etiquette and slang of gay life, to catch up on the “folklore” that had been developed while he was pining away in some hinterland. It was through this mode of inheritance, however piecemeal, that gayness survived and grew until the most important moment in its dissemination: World War II.

Historians of gay community in the U.S. like John D’Emilio have long argued that the unprecedented meeting and mixing of homosexual men from around the country during WWII military service (which, ironically, introduced medical screening practices that helped many non-urban homosexuals name themselves for the first time) represented a great gay awakening. In his account of gay life since the war, Charles Kaiser writes, “The wartime draft pulled all kinds of men together from every hamlet and metropolis. The army then acted like a giant centrifuge, creating the largest concentration of gay men inside a single institution in American history.” In fact, as Chauncey demonstrates, it was only after the boys had returned from the front—many of them settling with their kind in emerging gay meccas like New York and San Francisco—that gay would definitively shift from a coded descriptor used primarily by fairies to refer to a pleasingly flamboyant behavior or a friendly place to a term for all homosexuals, applied both internally and externally, more generally. It was in this shift—in the conflating of the culturally gay fairies with the homosexual queers under the banner of gay—that the seeds of our current discontent appear to have been sown.

The period of intense political invigoration that took place from the 1950s to the 1970s can be roughly broken down into the “homophile” movement that dominated before the Stonewall rebellion in 1969 and the “liberation” movement that lasted from just afterward until the onset of the AIDS crisis in the early 1980s. During those 30 years, gays moved, with striking rapidity, from a relatively quiet activism based on calls for tolerance and integration to a loud, brash, pride-parade model that celebrated sexual difference and sometimes even advocated separatism.

A “Miss C” from San Mateo, California, articulates the homophile ethos well in a 1958 letter to the editor of ONE Institute Quarterly, a sort of quasi-academic journal for early gay sociology. Referring to an earlier piece that supported a modicum of gay difference, she writes: “The suggestion that the homosexual possibly ought to ‘construct his own system of thought, and fit the world into it, rather than continue the hapless effort to fit himself onto a Procrustean bed’ is alarming. It sounds more than a little schizoid.” Compare that with this snippet from a 1971 issue of Queen’s Quarterly, a gay lifestyle magazine, which featured a bawdy article on preparing your home for a visit from mother dearest: “If she does not know, the first step is to run, do not walk, to the bedroom and hide the pornography, poppers, KY, dildo, leather restraints, fishnet hose, or anything else you and your lover use as sex aids. Next, take a butch pill. Third, sit down and have a good cry.”

Obviously these are different sorts of publications with different tones, but the ideological shift the excerpts reflect is clear. In the first, the rather modest notion that homosexuals might think about things differently is met with accusations of mental illness while in the second the author celebrates the wonderfully baroque accoutrement of gay sex and jokes about the anxiety over gay male gender presentation. A politics of conformity gives way to a politics of defiance.

Throughout this period, the notion of gay cultural practice occupies an interesting position—it was often seen as counterproductive or irrelevant by activists, and yet it was experiencing a period of vibrancy it hasn’t seen since. (If that sounds contradictory, consider a parallel like Prohibition: Official talking points often have little to do with people’s actual behavior.) To choose one index, the ’50s and ’60s are the heyday of “camp”—so much so that in 1964, a young critic like Susan Sontag could make her career writing a then-provocative essay about the homosexual “sensibility”—even while mainline homophile activists turned away from campy gays in embarrassment. The 1970s, though much less assimilationist in tone, were far more interested in gay sex than gay culture, at least officially. Of the decade, Edmund White writes, “for many men my age and older, gay life was only about sexual availability. Talk of gay politics or gay culture or gay history was met with a smile—c’mon, it’s all about getting laid!” Even so, the decade also saw Harry Hay and others’ founding of the Radical Faeries, a quasi-separatist group devoted to the practice of a New Age–inflected gayness as lifestyle.

To summarize these incredibly active decades is necessarily an exercise in simplification (for example, Hay himself was a founding homophile before he became a founding faerie), but the gist is this: Between WWII and the AIDS crisis, the meaning of gayness and the development of gay cultural practice was a subject of intense, generative debate. Dennis Altman originally expressed a version of his post-gay vision in 1971; but then, plenty of his gay contemporaries maintained an “exceptionalist” view of themselves, or at least believed that gayness offered more interesting possibilities than just sex with (mustachioed) dudes. One reading of the entire history of modern gay identity from around the turn of the 20th century onward could follow the tension between the two poles of the gay identity debate, with one side eschewing extra-sexual difference and the other embracing it. Given the momentum of the time, no one could have guessed that the heady, swerving debate would soon be brought to a screeching halt.

* * *

When AIDS ravaged gay men in the 1980s and early ’90s, it necessarily ravaged gay culture. For one thing, it immediately rendered the more frivolous-seeming gay practices like camp secondary to basic survival. But more important, it disrupted the process of gay cultural transmission that had gone on since the turn of the century. Within a few years, much of the cohort of gay men who would have taught gayness to the next generation—or at the very least shared the contours of the debate—were dead.

Justin Sayre, a writer and performer who runs a monthly variety show dedicated to the continuation of gay culture, recalled the moment he felt this painful absence most acutely. “Once, not long after I arrived in New York,” he told me, “I was taken to a cocktail party where there were a bunch of older gay men, and everyone was dull, dull, dull. I was complaining about this to my friend, and at some point he put his hand on my arm and said, ‘Darling, here’s the thing: Most of the interesting people died. That’s all there is to it.’ ” Sayre’s point in telling me this was not to denigrate the survivors or to make light of the trauma they suffered but simply to highlight the sad fact that many of those hit hardest by the epidemic were those most involved in practicing gay culture, most invested in a lifestyle in which gayness and gay connection were central.

Edmund White adds context to Sayre’s vignette, observing that after much of the “bravest and most unconventional” gay “standard-bearer” class was lost, “what replaced them were the dull normals,” more conservative, integrationist, often previously closeted types who proceeded to use their “superior wealth and executive skills” to take over gay politics and branding. Again, White—who helped found the Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982—is not criticizing the gays who survived for surviving; rather, he’s drawing a link between the loss of a certain vibrant segment of the community and shifts in gay thought going forward. “Whereas the men in my book were debating whether gays had a special destiny and a unique contribution to make to society or whether they were ideally like everyone else,” White writes in a new 2014 preface for his 1980 States of Desire, “now the argument was decided in favor of assimilation over gay exceptionalism.”

In White’s view, then, it’s largely because of the historical rupture of AIDS that we have the gay rights discourse of the mid-’90s till the present day. Ours is a moment defined by a striking amount of cultural amnesia and predicated on an understanding of gayness as a mundane biological difference without any cultural component to speak of—at least not in mixed company.

Of course, one could argue that this model has worked: Minimizing gayness has been the linchpin of assimilation, the central tactic in obtaining access to conservative institutions like military service and marriage. But that’s not the only quarter from which it receives abuse. Eliel Cruz, a talented young bisexual writer and activist, told me that many of his behaviorally homosexual male peers are now identifying as queer because gay carries unwelcome baggage. Within much of the lefty academy and a certain school of activism, traditional gay identity and practice is seen as being tainted with “privilege” by its (erroneous) reputation for being exclusively male, white, cisgender, urban, and/or wealthy. Gay is now insufficiently radical; it has a whiff of the powers that be at the Human Rights Campaign—a scent to avoid if you want to hang with the social justice cool kids. 

In fact, defenders of gayness are so uncool these days that when they do speak, they are practically booed from the room. When David Halperin, a founding scholar of gay studies, began to teach a course called “How to Be Gay” that explored gay cultural practices and the ways young homosexual men are initiated into them back in 2000, he was excoriated by legislators and op-ed writers around the world—first from the predictable “they’re recruiting our children!” paranoiacs on the right, but then from within the community itself for being “reckless and provocative,” “trading in stereotypes,” and “endangering the struggle for lesbian and gay civil rights.” Halperin’s remarkable 2013 book expounding on the themes of the class was met with similar hand wringing, if not “shut up, old queen” dismissal.

Both the assimilationist and queer impulses have conspired to make it controversial to speak about even the possibility of a gay cultural practice. Some critics have tried to head off any dissenters at the pass. Daniel Harris wrote in his 1997 book The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture that “the end of oppression necessitates the end of gay sensibility.” Fin. Assimilation thought leader Andrew Sullivan has been more strident, writing his own “gay culture is dead” essay (a veritable subgenre by the midaughts) in the New Republic in 2005 and following up with occasional dances on the grave, at least until the death of his own blog earlier this year.

So in 2015, gayness, we are told, is over. It was a product of a darker time, and we are well freed of it. Only those suffering from nostalgia or self-hatred should miss it. Goodbye, gay—and good riddance.

And yet … my apartment is gay. And so is this New York ice cream shop. And drag queens are shilling for Orbitz on television. And shade, (black) gayness’s contribution to the art of insult, is so hot right now even Jeopardy! is trying to throw it. Despite the ascendancy of assimilation, despite the cultural amnesia brought on by AIDS, despite the fact that we are supposedly already post-gay, there is still a hunger out there—or at least a peckishness—for gay cultural practice. It makes you wonder: Is there a way to preserve or repurpose something of gayness, even as its primacy fades? Like I said, let’s leave the homos alone; but for those still interested—for those who still need it—how might we go about being gay in a world where that’s now truly a choice?

What Gay Is

The problem with writing about gayness is that, at some point, you have to define it. So far, I’ve talked a lot about “gay cultural practice” or “gay sensibility” or the need to learn “how to be gay” without really being clear about what those phrases mean. But when it comes to cultural practices—even ones that are rendered more docile for being supposedly “over”—clarity can be hard to come by. A popular approach has been to look for gayness in certain genres, objects, and cultural figures and in our relationship to them—think opera, Judy Garland, interior design, drag queens, disco. This is an understandably satisfying exercise for those who do, in fact, identify with those specific artifacts. But for the young queen who simply can’t get into Joan Crawford, gay canonization is a misguided, unhelpful quest. What we need is to pull back from all the discrete entities to which gayness has been drawn over the decades and instead attempt to reduce the thing to its core components: the fundamental practices that constitute a gay way of being in the world.

So here goes, my stab at an auto-ethnography of a gay way of being, in four key concepts.

1. Cruising

It’s a stereotype that gay men are detail-oriented. We attend to texture, we get the importance of garnish, we advise on etiquette—that sort of thing. But stereotypes are often founded in reality, and in this case, the reputation is well earned. If I had to reduce gayness to its most fundamental aspect, its most unadorned truth, it would be this: Gayness begins in the practice of paying attention, deeply and with great skill.

That may sound anodyne, but consider the situation in which the earliest homosexuals, learning of their existence as a group, found themselves during the last decades of the 19th century in the less reputable neighborhoods of the world’s metropolises. If I come to see myself as a type of person, a minority, whom the majority may despise but who at least is no longer alone, what might be my first concerns? Safety (evading the eyes of the majority) and community (identifying others of my kind).

Enter cruising. Usually when we talk about cruising, we’re talking about the venerable gay practice of picking out, and perhaps picking up, other gay strangers on the street or at the bar with little more than a glance, a half-smile, and a nod. As a mode of sexual and social introduction, cruising had its heyday before the AIDS crisis, in the sex-soaked city streets of the 1970s and back well into the era of Wilde—though it can still be found on metropolitan subway cars and certain gayborhood avenues to this very day. But cruising isn’t just about getting laid. The same skills used for that endeavor—the attention to details of grooming, dress, and body language, the attunement to subtle shifts in energy or affect—also aid the gay person in other aspects of life.

Cruising can catch you a mate, but it can just as well alert you to an enemy. It can also help you blend in when code-switching—the art of toning down some “ethnic” aspect of yourself in certain unfriendly situations—is required. All homosexual men, even the ones loath to admit it, are wizened cruisers of straight masculinity, making copious notes on its intricacies. In the same way, paying attention to detail can simply help you identify a fellow traveler; gaydar may have required a green carnation on the lapel in Wilde’s time, but in the decades since, we’ve learned that the tinniest fluctuations in speech or comportment can resound like a siren.

Cruising becomes most important to gay practice as it manifests beyond personal interactions, however. Indeed, once one has been trained of necessity to attend to nuance, the habit quickly takes over in less charged contexts. Here’s Wilde-chaser Neil Bartlett again, recalling his approach to hunting his prey in the archives: “I pursued texts with the dogged energy I usually reserve for cruising; I became excited by the smallest hints; I scrutinized every gesture for significance; sometimes I simply stood close and waited for a response.” In his work, queer critic Wayne Koestenbaum has elaborated cruising, which he defines as “readerly readiness … a willingness to pick up codes,” into a sort of ethical position in which paying tribute to nuance is a holy act. I would add that camp, which I’ve defined in the past as something like a joyously overzealous pleasure taken in noticing the “wrong” detail, is really just cruising applied to the culture at large.

When homosexuals say they no longer identify as gay, what they are asserting, at least in part, is a belief that they no longer need to cruise. And it’s true to an extent: Grindr can bring even the most hapless homo a trick, and, at least in certain locales and for certain gender expressions, code-switching is now less of a requirement. But those functions are clearly the least interesting of cruising’s repertoire.  

2. Drag

“Many gay men,” Chauncey writes early in Gay New York, “described negotiating their presence in an often hostile world as living a double life, or wearing a mask and taking it off. Each image has a valence different from ‘the closet,’ for each suggests not gay men’s isolation, but their ability—as well as their need—to move between different personas and different lives, one straight, the other gay, to wear their hair up, as another common phrase put it, or let their hair down.”

Drag, defined broadly, is this notion of mask-changing turned into a full-scale worldview. It is cruising—in particular, attentiveness to the details one must master to pass for straight—deployed in the service of self-presentation. If I want that man over there not to hit me (or maybe that man just behind him to hit on me), it’s useful to understand the nuances of how to style myself so as to deflect or attract certain kinds of attention. The thing about this game is that once you’ve played it long enough, you realize that all self-presentation is a kind of performance—a mask that may or must be put on or taken off—and you further realize that everyone around you, regardless of whether they are sporting fake lashes or not, is really in drag.

Civil rights progress aside, all but the most bro-ish gay men encounter the need for straight drag at some point in their lives, which I think explains the continuing prominence of drag queens in gay culture—a reality not at all anticipated. Dennis Altman writes in The End of the Homosexual?: “[I]t was largely assumed that drag would disappear as a central part of gay life as the idea that homosexuality was an expression of one’s failure to meet gender expectations partly collapsed. But this has not happened: Drag remains iconic in gay life, and every gay pride event features drag queens …”

But drag queens don’t exist to make fun of femininity or gay gender expression per se; rather, they take the mask-wearing that our society requires of us as a mundane function of existence and turn it into entertainment. Gays often compare drag shows to church, and this is why: Preachers give sermons about the ways of the world. Drag queens do the same thing with makeup and lip-syncs, speaking a gospel that gays understand all too well. Considering that, it should be no surprise that the drag queen’s position as the shaman of gay culture, where it’s still practiced, remains firmly in place.

3. Queenliness

The most unsophisticated view of gayness one usually hears is that it is shallow, bitchy, and mean. The critics who level this charge, many of them the homosexuals who reject gayness, seem to despise the persona of the queen—the gay man, usually on the femme side, who approaches everyone around him and life in general with a certain haughtiness and superiority. Such queens do exist, to be sure; but that need not ruin an otherwise valuable component of gayness, one that is the natural outgrowth of the cruising and drag practices discussed above.

On the one hand, posing with Wildean aristocratic superiority toward the mainstream makes a certain amount of sense for a group pushed to the margins—in that case, we’re talking about a coping strategy. But that’s only the beginning of what queenliness offers the gay practitioner. To my mind, achieving queendom is akin to reaching a state of enlightenment: Once you’ve mastered society’s operational codes through cruising and recognized that everyone is doing drag whether they like it or not, it’s hard to continue to take the whole thing very seriously—which, to the uninitiated, may come off as haughty. In a recent interview at the New York Public Library, RuPaul articulated this ethos, rambling on gloriously about how life—up to and including the very interview he was enduring—was really a kind of play or game that we should feel free to mess with whenever possible. It was all a little hippy-dippy; but then, a queen can do whatever she likes.

Whether or not you buy Ru’s ontology, the important thing to note about gay queenliness is that it’s where the lessons of cruising and drag condense into a mode of uniquely gay cultural critique. In his engrossing study of the midcentury paranoia over gay influence in the arts, Michael S. Sherry recalls that because gay artists were obliged to approach American life like foreigners, they were compensated with an outsider’s insight into institutions like the nuclear family and patriotism—and what Edward Albee, Tennessee Williams, and others reflected back in their work was not always pretty. (The sense that gays seemed to hold themselves up as judges of straight culture would drive homophobes like Midge Decter, who railed against malicious and hateful queens in the pages of Commentary in 1980, to conniption during the culture wars.) I don’t mean to suggest that queenliness always produces trenchant critique; but practiced well, queenly perspective has the potential to cast gayness in the always salutary role of the gadfly.

4. Family

My favorite bit of gay slang, by far, is the word family. Most often, it’s used in mixed company as a coded way of asking another gay if a third person present is part of the club. For example, of the well-dressed guy across the cocktail party, you might ask your friend, “Darling, is she family or does she just have good taste?,” indulging in a little pronoun play for extra discretion. The metaphor blooms from there into an extensive gay kinship network, populated with sisters (guys you adore but would never sleep with for social reasons), aunties (gay elders who might play a mentorship role), and, especially in the drag queen world, mothers and daughters.

I end with the concept of family because to me, it represents the way gayness uses the information it gleans from cruising, drag, and queenliness to make new possibilities for itself. To elucidate all the meanings of gay family would require another article, but the central point is that once you recognize the arbitrariness of the relationship models offered to you by straight culture, imagining other configurations becomes almost mandatory.

Edmund White gets at this when he meditates on the gay tendency for sexual encounters to breed friendship: “I don’t want to make too much of the democracy of gay life,” he writes in States of Desire, “but gay men undeniably are more likely than straights to reach across social and age barriers in search of sex. Sex leads to friendship, and friendship leads to the exchange of information. I have friends of every age and ethnic background; I feel that I am less insulated than my straight counterpart (I sometimes try to picture that poor hypothetical devil).” Or take Foucault, the philosopher who originally tracked the homosexual to the late 19th century. In the years leading up to his death in 1984, Foucault was developing a notion of gayness as a way of living distinct from homosexuality, and it relied heavily on the notion of intimate friendship. These relations might involve sex, but they were also characterized by a deep homosocial affection—one that the historical record shows was common before the divisive invention of homo- and heterosexuality and the attendant homophobia.

Then there’s Jack, my drag queen grandmother. I have been blessed to have relationships with both of my biological grandmothers in my life; but as a gay man, Jack—a queen in her 70s who also goes by the name Flawless Sabrina—has been an important part of my family as well. I will treasure for the rest of my life the memory of when, while prepping for a Halloween drag excursion, Jack eyed my wig-line carefully. Unsatisfied, she reached into her desk drawer and pulled out a plastic fork, which she then used to blend, with a few flicks of her pliant, practiced wrist, Bryan’s hair with Fancy Peachtree’s. “You look gorgeous, darling,” he said, smiling at the work. I still have that fork, tucked safely inside a simple black purse that Jack loaned me for the occasion that I keep meaning, and forgetting, to give back. Grandmothers don’t mind that sort of thing though, right?

Will Gay Be?

In March, I had the privilege of visiting a new affordable housing community in Philadelphia that is explicitly LGBT-friendly. The apartment building, located just off the gay bar strip in Center City, was conceived as a solution to a heart-breaking problem; namely, that when many of our queer elders go into senior care and nursing homes, they are forced by the homophobia of their neighbors and even caretakers to go back into the closet, even after decades of living openly.

Thankfully, there were no such pressures here. Each floor was painted in a Key West–y color (to aid with memory, my tour group was told), and many of the hallways featured photographs of early gay civil rights protests, some in which the residents had participated. We were invited into one man’s home, and once we had finished gushing over how nice the space was, he invited a few of us into his bedroom. On the wall across from his bed, he proudly displayed a collection of old Broadway show posters—one of which he admitted, with a grin, to having stolen right off the marquee.

As I listened to his giddy story, I was struck by the fact that though his gayness was not exactly mine, we did share something in common. But looking around the rest of his obviously gay apartment, I wondered: After he’s gone, is that it? His gayness seemed visceral; mine is already considerably intellectual. Will the next generation simply not think about gayness at all?

While social prognostication is a fool’s errand, I think there are a few plausible futures. To start, homosexual men might get gayer—the pendulum between difference minimization and gay cultural embrace could conceivably swing back toward the latter pole again. This is unlikely for two reasons. One, according to Mary Gray, a scholar at Indiana University focused on media, anthropology, and queer studies, many of the young “gay” men she encounters in her teaching and research don’t feel comfortable identifying with the term because the media representations of gay men they see don’t comport with their lives or self-conceptualization. (In addition to the standard objections to flamboyance and effeminacy, Gray offers another example: “I’ve met a number of young men who said, ‘I don’t know if I’m really gay because I just want one partner.’ ”) Two, there’s the pesky issue of socialization; many of my sources worried over the fact that one side effect of growing (if uneven) LGBTQ equality has been the decline of strong gay social networks among youth, which in the past were formed out of necessity. While diversity among one’s friends is obviously not a bad thing, it’s true, as Gray points out, that “there is just no way to be gay all by yourself.”

Still, some gay culture warriors, like the queens behind the amazing Homewerq series (a YouTube show that introduces “the children” to gay concepts, icons, and lingo) and writer Matt Baume (whose new podcast investigates gay cultural fixations), are actively trying to spur a renaissance. There’s also the notion, which Halperin articulates with some amusement, that the young generation always rejects gayness, only to transform sometime in middle age into the old queens they had discounted: “From gay men who had no need of gay culture, they seem to become, in the twinkling of an eye, gay culture’s stooges, its dreariest representatives.”

Another option is to consider our biases and reimagine which minority groups would find gayness to be most relevant to their experience now. It makes sense that male-presenting, city-dwelling white homosexuals, given their relative privilege, would be freest to practice gayness in the open and therefore be seen by the mainstream as most representative of that culture. But the historical record shows that gayness was never limited to that demographic, and indeed, it was often less privileged groups—femme individuals, people of color, poor people, bisexuals, trans people, women of various sexualities and gender presentations—who were gayness’s most fearless creators and practitioners. (For evidence of that, look no further than the Prancing Elites, a black gay and transgender dance team fearlessly bringing their own sort of gayness to hostile communities in the Deep South.) These groups and others continue to use gayness for their own purposes, refracting it through their lenses on the world—for them, the practices of coping and critique afforded by gayness are hardly dispensable.

What’s telling is that the people most vocal about the end of gay culture now are the people who need it least in our current political moment: those same male-presenting, city-dwelling white homosexuals like Sullivan and Silver. Adrienne Shaw, a professor of media and LGBT studies at Temple University, pointed out that one way forward is to remember that gayness, having been born out of oppression, always contained a politics of resistance. “What brings [gayness] beyond sexuality is the politics of it—the politics of survival and existence,” she says. “Approaching it as politics gets us beyond this ‘do we even need it anymore?’ thing, as that only applies to people who already have all the rights they need. They’re in a position of privilege to say, ‘Hey, we don’t need this anymore.’ ” Mary Gray expressed this as being “one layer away from full citizenship,” a luxury that obviously depends heavily on race, gender-presentation, class, and even location. Gray’s research on rural queer life in her eye-opening book Out in the Country underlines that last point, reminding us that ramshackle drag shows in the aisles of a country Walmart can represent gay practice just as powerfully—if not more so, given the far more hostile context—as those that take place in urban gay enclaves.

My favorite possibility, though, is that gayness, conceptualized as a set of practices distanced from their roots in oppression and decoupled from homosexuality, becomes available to anyone with the good sense to seek it out. Halperin supports this path as well, observing that “it turns out that being gay gives you no automatic intellectual advantage when it comes to appreciating, understanding, or analyzing gay culture.” That’s good news for sexually mysterious polymath James Franco, who recently declared: “I’m gay in my art and straight in my life.” And we can add the data point of my friend Kelly, a straight woman who gets camp and other elements of gayness better than a lot of supposedly gay men I know, or Mallory Ortberg’s intriguing “Syllabus for the Course on ‘Camp Heterosexuality’ I Have Not Yet Been Asked to Teach” to our dossier in support of Halperin’s statement. I put the question of opening up gayness to nonhomos to Justin Sayre for another perspective, and though he was enthusiastic, he warned that supplicants must grasp the mode’s history in marginalization to truly and respectfully understand it. I agree with that, but I imagine that anyone with the curiosity will also be capable of the necessary empathy.

Top photo illustration: AFP/Getty Images (Michel Foucault), Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images (’Liz #1 (Early Colored Liz)’ by Andy Warhol), Cindy Ord/Getty Images (’Ken Moody and Robert Sherman’ by Robert Mapplethorpe), Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty Images (Painting by US artist Keith Haring).

So much has changed since White and Bartlett cornered gayness in an apartment at the end of liberation. We’ve gotten sick and acted up, buried loved ones and built coalitions, become virtually normal and rebelled radically queer, been asked not to tell and told not to ask, seen ourselves represented on TV and suffered debates over what that represents, marched on Washington and, more recently, down the aisle. But through all those political and social changes, gayness remained, even when it wasn’t wanted, even when it was asked to leave. It has grown quiet, sure, even hovered near dormancy. But it’s not dead, not yet.

I started this piece by asking what gay was; one of the answers to that question, as the liberationists themselves used to put it, was that it was good. I still think gay is good, though making that argument in a world in which identity is becoming both more complex and more contested will be difficult. But gay is also resilient, and it has a way of thriving best when welcomed least. Future gayness will undoubtedly be different from what it was—but then, isn’t reinvention the essence of good style? I, for one, can’t wait to see what gayness will become.