False Utopias and Queer Assimilations

A tremendous part of my longing and pain as a young queer man growing up in Kentucky came from a lack of community, and a sense of otherness largely invisible to straight white male society. The belief in the existence of a larger gay community, one accepting but critical of its own faults, arborized while unified, was the fantasy that lured me into willingly accepting (notably straight white) media’s portrayal of such a circle. This yearning for a queer utopia never waned in me. When I leave a queer space, I feel the transition into everyday structural violence from a place where the predominant oppression is largely based in the self. José Esteban Muñoz writes of this in the works of John Giorno, describing the feelings of loss associated with leaving the Prince Street bathrooms after anonymous sex with a boy who would turn out to be Keith Haring:

After this scene in the Prince Street toilet, Giorno runs out and catches a train in the nick of time: “I said goodbye and I was out the door in a flash, onto the train going uptown.” Once on the train he feels himself once again overwhelmed by the crushing presence and always expanding force field that is heteronormativity: “It is always was a shock entering the straight world of a car full of grim people sitting dumbly with suffering on their faces and in their bodies, and their minds in their prisons.” This experience of being “shocked” by the prison that is heteronormaitivty, the straight world, is one that a reader, especially a queer reader, encounters after putting down a queer utopian memory text such as Giorno’s. (Cruising Utopia, pp38-41)

The first time that I experienced queer leather communities (the first uniquely queer environments I encountered) I felt that tinge; same for when I went to my first gay club some time later, beaches in Long Island, walks through the Castro, and much more. The mile sojourn back from the gay section of Jones Beach takes the shock Giorno describes and distributes its force over a twenty minute transition. The walk travels from areas where all gay bodies (though notably only biologically male, expected bodies) are accepted and welcomed, to areas where gay men predominate but exist to be seen as glamorous, to a complete assimilation into a largely heterosexual, crowded, and often conservative setting. Hoping to retain some sense of positive queerness proves largely useless. Retention of this sense of identity, this self-acceptance, has become one of the greatest endeavors of my life: to carry these shards of queer utopia with me where I go.

In my search, I found myself drawn to images, photos, writings, and experiences of the gay male in NYC during the 1980s, just before and just after early understanding of the outbreak of HIV/AIDS in the US. These images, stories, legacies spurred a sense of nostalgia for a time and place predating my birth, for a sex-positive utopia where assimilation was never truly a survival strategy for queer men; a time when survival was rejected, and complete, rich communities were being woven. Hegemonic tools of oppression for sexual minorities were being destroyed and rejected. Shaming was increasingly futile in trying to corral public displays of queer existences. The first real, truly queer art was being born.

This utopia, of course, did not truly and completely exist. The nostalgia for this queer golden era is largely false; Cynthia Carr writes of this that “misremembering is one way to protect oneself from a violating reality.” Particularly in contrast to the pain and devastation of HIV/AIDS, we (including generations raised in the aftermath of the disease) have a natural inclination to misremember and laud this decade, seeking strength and power from a history when we on the surface appeared to no longer suffer from the same structures that oppress us today. The whitewashing of this time goes largely unnoticed; the images we see of queer men of color in the 1970s and 1980s stand in contention with the tenuous, continued aftermath of the struggles for civil rights. The visionary works of Robert Mapplethorpe largely exclude black men except to isolate their race; while white men are portrayed as prismatic, walking between worlds of domination and submission, femininity and masculinity, mundane acceptances and punk rejections.

HIV/AIDS was, and still is, indisputably a travesty that shook the core of the gay community. Completely aside from the multitudes of deaths and lives destroyed by loss, it spurred a drive for assimilation that pervades the gay community today. It is in rebellion to that drive that I find myself overwhelmed by faux nostalgia, for these utopian ideals of sexuality that never completely formed during that era. Perhaps, more succinctly, I long for the hopes and anticipations of that era: the feeling that we were gaining a voice, an identity, an awareness of our brothers’ identities, and an almost acceptance with being marginalized, rejecting any need to be acknowledged by our oppressors. Now more than ever, I feel nearly as oppressed by the fight for gay rights, this sick fascination with being viewed as equals to straight, heteronormative majorities, when I know we are unique and cannot be compared to them, let alone should seek validation from their hands. Of this, queer music critic Alex Ross writes:

Edith Eyde’s prophecy is almost fulfilled: gays are more or less regular folk. All the same, many who came out during the Stonewall era are wondering what will be lost as the community sheds its pariah status. They are baffled by the latter-day cult of marriage and the military—emblems of Eisenhower’s America that the Stonewall generation joyfully rejected. The gay world is confronting a question with which Jews, African-Americans, and other marginalized groups have long been familiar: the price of assimilation.(“Love on the March” in the New Yorker, November 12, 2012)

I dare think that if you were to ask anyone in Act Up during the late 1980s the value of same-sex marriage in the fight for queer rights and identity, it would be near-negligible. Self-preservation would be paramount; in light of disease, in light of protests and Stonewall, in light of a rage of being dismissed while living and dismissed while dying. The shedding of the pariah status Ross cites does little to address these concerns, yet this is markedly how LGBTQ organizations summarize and represent the fight for “equality.”

In the face of rejecting assimilation, queer communities have created their most powerful tools. In bypassing hegemonic societal standards for success, Jack Halberstam writes that queers “imagine other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being” (Queer Art of Failure, p88). These goals, these alternatives to capitalistic successes and failures, are diluted by the further assimilation of queer individuals into heteronormative structures.

It is for this reason that I have such a strong nostalgia, faux or otherwise, for a past that is not mine. I long not for the era, but for a queer time and place where the search for alternative answers (and questions; the very consideration of whether or not questions need be asked, need be answered) is valued more highly than the choices themselves. I live now in a fragmented community where hegemonic practices are now advocated to fight hegemony. In the past actions of Act Up, HIV/AIDS activism, and the development of queer identities and spaces, we saw queer populations that distrust decisions made behind closed doors; we advocated for two-way transparencies: of practices that affected us, and of our own identities in the lives of others that must be affected by us, rather than dismiss us. It is this attitude, characterized less by suspicion and distrust than by genesis, that I crave, and this attitude that makes me queer, not gay.

Sean Hanson