Winning Queer Culture Wars
Having just come back from the 2007 Z Media Institute where I taught classes
on Queer Theory, Queer Organizing, and Pop Culture, I am reminded of how
much of progressive politics happens is connected to popular culture. Social
change happens in all sorts of ways, but one of the most important ways
that queer issues—from acceptance and accommodation to equality and overt
influence—have become manifest in the mainstream has been through various
facets of popular culture. Indeed, to a large degree, gay and lesbian influences
in popular culture have completely changed how many people in the U.S.
(and in many parts of the world influenced by American culture) not just
think about queer people, but how they think and act about their own lives.
Since the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the underground gay counterculture has
consistently, and vitally, influenced mainstream popular culture in style,
music, fashion, language, sexual mores, and politics. Maybe this was a
“homosexual agenda” about which the right wing complains endlessly, but
it was embraced by many middle Americans who were happy to enjoy something
that was different from their own lives. More important, it liberated them
from the constraints of their own imaginations and self-imposed limits.
To celebrate this progression, here are ten decisive moments that chart
the gradual queering of U.S. culture.
1970: Bette Midler
Although she has turned into a nice liberal who sings songs like “The Wind
Beneath My Wings,” in 1970 Bette Midler, mixing an outrageous blend of
camp, sex talk, and Andrews Sisters tunes, began performing at Manhattan’s
gay Continental Baths. Within six months, she was one of Johnny Carson’s
favorite guests and in early 1973 her LP The Divine Miss M went gold. Midler’s
enormous popularity brought a gay male camp sensibility to a huge audience
and made it okay for women to talk blatantly about sex in public. Midler
showed mainstream culture that the gender and sexual threats of gay culture
was also its enduring promise and liberation for everyone else.
1972: Ziggy Stardust
If the Rolling Stones shocked middle-class sensibilities with their rough,
thrusting swagger, it was Ziggy Stardust—David Bowie—who in 1972 singlehandedly
invented glam rock, making androgyny, glitter, face paint, and ambi-sexual
posturing the newest threat to red- blooded American youth, spawning artists
such as KISS and Boy George. Bowie claimed in 1972 that he was bisexual
and then ten years later claimed that he did that just to get attention—more
attention than cross-dressing, wearing make-up, kissing men on stage, and
singing about alien sex? But it didn’t really matter, for millions of young
listeners Bowie’s image and message was that imagination and sexual desire
mattered more than gender and sexual orientation.
1977: The Village People
In 1977 producer Jacques Morali manufactured the disco sensation the Village
People, who satirized butch gay-male stereotypes. What began as an insider
parody sold more than 85 million albums and “YMCA”—a testimonial to anonymous
gay-boy sex—is now a staple of summer camp sing-a-longs. It was followed
a year later by the satirical “Macho Man” and a year after that by “In
the Navy,” whose message about sex between men was even clearer. The Stonewall
Riots were only eight years old and the movement had made such enormous
cultural advances that AM radio could now play a barely coded song about
gay sex that little kids sang along with. Was it any surprise that an enormous
anti-queer backlash—spearheaded at first by Anita Bryant and her Save Our
Children campaign—began at this cultural moment?
Her impersonations of Marilyn Monroe in her 1984 Material Girl video and
her 1990 hit “Vogue” made Madonna a premiere conduit of gay culture to
the young masses who may not have known the exact origins of her images
and dancing, but had no problem emulating her. Along with pushing the envelope
in discussions of gender and sex—she and Sandra Bernhardt went on late
night TV numerous times claiming that they were lovers. Madonna insisted
that people take her notion of being a possibly post-feminist, liberated
woman seriously. She sang songs about being “like a virgin” (quite different
from being one) and was vehement in her endorsement of gay rights.
1985: Rock Hudson
Rock Hudson, the 1950’s most vital, masculine, heterosexual heartthrob,
died of AIDS-related infections in 1985, making his long-rumored homosexuality
visible. His ravaged face on the cover of People and supermarket tabloids
brought home the horrors of the AIDS epidemic to millions who had chosen
to ignore it. If this could happen to Rock Hudson—one of Hollywood’s pantheon
of gods and goddesses—AIDS must be a serious problem. But more than the
culture shock that was the result of his illness and death, there was also
a new understanding that life beneath the tinsel of Hollywood was queerer
than moviegoers had previously suspected—and that the women and men you
welcomed into your hearts over the years were not what you thought them
1992: Calvin Klein
Men’s bodies have always been sexualized in gay-male culture—Physique Pictorial
of the 1950s became the template for male bodies everywhere. But in 1992
photographer Herb Ritts upped the ante with his Calvin Klein ads, which
brought a gay-porn sensibility to Vanity Fair. With Calvin Klein using
huge images of near-naked men on billboards in Times Square, mass culture
had to admit that the passive sex appeal that had always been consigned
to the female form was now granted to the traditionally less-fair sex.
While well- filled briefs and prominent nipples became the erotic currency
for ads for men’s clothing and colognes, they also indicated that the appeal
of being the sexual object—the body being looked at, the body being objectified,
the body being desired—was socially and culturally permissible.
In 1997 Ellen Degeneres—the most famous soft-butch in America—“came out”
on her TV sit-com. The show was cancelled a year later, but Ellen made
“Will and Grace,” “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” “Queer as Folk,” and
“The L Word” possible. While none of these shows are great (“Will and Grace”
could be funny; “Queer Eye” is product placement for hair conditioner),
they were all part of a massive television normalization process by which
likeable queer people became as American as Lucy and Desi Arnez, June and
Ward Cleaver. The ultimate effect of this was not simply to bring gay people
into our living rooms every night, but to destabilize the very notion of
televised normality that U.S. culture had promoted for decades.
1998: Dennis Rodman
Dennis Rodman’s 1998 autobiography Bad as I Wanna Be was as revealing as
his flagrant display of body art. Rodman’s fondness for tattoos, piercings,
flamboyantly colored cranial plumage, and wedding dresses was shocking
to not only sports fans, but most of mainstream America. But Rodman’s imagery
came straight out of queer male subculture. A triumph of mix-messaged drag/punk/biker
gay sensibility—it was a precursor to the milder metrosexual, but a throwback
to the dangerous sexual deviant. Sure, in many ways, Rodman was a fabulous
freak, but he was also a major contradiction to traditional ideas of what
it meant to be a man.
1998: “Sex and the City”
It’s no surprise that critics thought “Sex and the City” (1998-2004) was
the ultimate integration of gay-male sensibility into TV. It was written
by gay men and its edgy sexual dialogue and plots were gayer than “Will
and Grace.” Is this what heterosexual women really sounded like in private?
Only their screenwriters knew for sure. “Sex and the City” gave birth to
the idea that women could chat about desire and sex as much as men, the
message that Bette Midler was preaching to the newly converted in 1972.
The public voice of women speaking about sex was deeply connected with
gay male life and culture. Heterosexual freedom, once again, turned out
to be a copy of queer life and love.
2006: Mark Foley et al.
In September 2006 Florida Republican Congressperson Mark Foley resigned
amid allegations of improper behavior toward male pages. Heterosexuals
breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t, yet again, one of them. When
evangelical big-shot Ted Haggard admitted to having a three-year relationship
with male call-guy Mike Jones in November 2006, it became clear that the
undies of fundies were not always where they should be. The popular press
promoted this as though it was just another Brad Pitt break-up or one more
Paris Hilton breakdown. Foley’s indiscretions evinced another crack in
the facade of Republican respectability and Haggard’s queer dalliances
proved that the rapture was closer than people thought. Both of these incidents
proved the old gay lib adage: we are everywhere. But, aside from the gossip
value, the idea of the gay conservative provided popular culture with another,
always evolving, model of the sheer instability of queerness. There were
no real, sturdy walls between “gay” and “straight” between the “immoral”
and the “righteous.” From Bette Midler’s breezy camp talk to Madonna’s
gal pals to big, tough bruisers in white wedding gowns, America is increasingly
becoming (at least metaphorically) the land of the free and the home of
the queer, whether you were queer or not.
Michael Bronski is the author of Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age
of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martin’s Press).