Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Are We Gay Anymore?

This year's San Francisco gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender film festival celebrates thirty years of revolutionary films. We could boast that we were, not only the first queer film festival in the world, but the biggest with an audience that many filmmakers would tell us was uniquely gratifying and fun. We were not shy about expressing our appreciation and, much less so these days, our displeasure.

I had attended the last twenty years of those films and seen the shift from experimental and revolutionary to glamorous and mainstream. The actresses playing lesbians are more beautiful than ever, the filmmaking of high quality and the scripts largely devoid of angst. So what was missing? Could it be us?

After the showing of the light comedy, What's Up Scarlet?, the male director and two female leads came up to the stage for the question and answer period. None of them were gay. The script had been written by one of the actresses in order to generate material for herself (presumably because she was reaching that age when she would be eligible for fewer romantic leads and was not yet old enough to be a character actress.) She wrote the script to include a second actress, to spread the wealth so to speak, and it was based in part on experiences from her own life, though she did not say whether those experiences had been gay.

The result was a charming romantic comedy between two interesting, but straight women who, through improbable circumstances, come to live together, drive each other crazy, then fall into bed. There is also a controlling mother and six dogs (probably also in need of work). The love affair is what a lesbian audience would wish on two strong-minded women and it even has a happy ending as we would define it, but it was not gay, not really. It was the flattery of imitation.

The director asked the audience if the film worked for us. Was it convincing? "Yes," shouted a handful of women from the audience. So endearing was their eagerness to please us, that those who disagreed remained politely silent. The film had been respectful and supportive in the treatment of the love affair, but the kiss scene completely missed the necessary five layers of nuance between the two women.

For one thing, it was shot in the over-the-shoulder predatory angle commonly used in film, when a man kisses a woman. A kiss between two women is best shot in profile. The better to see the silent dialogue that unfolds, i.e.: the approach (someone has to do it), recognition (of all that this kiss will entail), desire (determines how hot this scene is going to be), resistance (there must be some) and mutual surrender (finally). If we get all this, then we will care how the relationship pans out. But I didn't care, not really. So this is what it has come to, I found myself thinking. Gay liberation means that straight gals get to have fun with each other, while the whole movement grinds to a halt over the fight for gay marriage, a heterosexual convention.

As nice, straight looking gay and lesbian couples plead with straight voters that they should have the right to marry because, really we are just like you, what happened? Why did we so easily relinquish our unique world view in order to clamor that we are no more interesting than a conventional married couple aspiring to a life in the suburbs with children? Is this not a cultural dumbing down of our aspirations? Or did we, like the rest of the nation, get hijacked by the religious right?

Back in the early 90's, it was explained to me this way by an unapologetic butch dyke who rented a room in my then lover's house. A Canadian, socialist, she could not, nor would she willingly, pass for straight. As she saw it, the conservatives in our government, recognized that the gay community had pulled together over the AIDS crisis and were beginning to take on some serious social issues, mainly healthcare. The issue of being single and without healthcare was also a concern for the straight community, particularly seniors, another formidable voting block. The women's movement was, already, embroiled in healthcare, through the fight for abortion rights and reproduction issues. Were these three coalitions to unite, there would form a serious movement for universal healthcare which would then, god forbid, lead to other social reforms and the reigning in of capitalism's runaway greed and exploitation.

The conservatives, those masters of polarization, had to come up with something that would smash these coalitions just as Clinton was coming into power on a universal healthcare platform. So what did they do? They gave us gays in the military, so claims my socialist friend. This threw the focus off of social issues and back onto a tiny sector of civil rights where the most contentious, homophobic and rigidly hierarchical government institution could easily fight off any serious intrusions.

The "Don't ask, don't tell," ruling was possibly one of the most damaging messages to result from a civil rights battle and it was presented to us, by Clinton, as a victory. Gays in the military were now to be free from harassment, but only if they looked, acted, and spoke just like straight people.

Ever since, we queers have not been quite the same. The assimilationist notion that the majority of Americans would graciously invite us to their party if they knew that we were really just like them seemed to be the driving premise behind the fight for gay marriage. The focus shifted from radical faeries to lesbian moms and gay dads, from political activist for real social change to mild mannered co-worker. We were put in the peculiar position of trying to out straight straight people.

Middle America does not want us to be just like them. They want us to be invisible. Such were the sentiments of a letter to the Chronicle from a Los Altos resident immediately following this year's pride parade. "If gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transsexuals want to be considered on the same level as straight people, what purpose does prancing down Market Street in jockstraps and balloons, "celebrating" how different you are, serve in achieving social equality?" he asked. The responses poured in. Because, dude, we all loose something as a society if we do not celebrate who we are and bow down to the sensibilities of homophobes like you. I was glad to see the community could still say as much.

I feared that we had been seduced by niche marketing. Our hunger for images of ourselves made us a ripe target for corporations looking for a new market. In the 80's when Levi's came out with a TV ad that put a woman in a cowboy outfit in a James Dean pose against the setting sun, I was so taken by this butch persona, I decided that a job working for Levi's would be the pinnacle of my career as a graphic designer. (Luckily, it didn't take me too long to realize that working long hours in a high pressure job whose sole purpose was to sell more blue jeans, was not worthy of my time.)

Originally uploaded by RcktManIL.
Still, if Absolut Vodka wanted to sponsor the film festival then our gratitude manifested in sales and absolut loyalty. The pride parade has so many corporate sponsored floats, it's beginning to resemble the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. The Castro, once a neighborhood of locally owned businesses, could be a mall, flanked by Pottery Barn and a Diesel clothing store at one end and held down by Starbucks and the Body Shop at the other. We had our jeans, our coffee and our foot lotion and now we wanted our rights. The boutique approach to legislating rights for gay people whether in the workplace, in public schools and in marriage has taken us down a path of diminishing returns to an outright impasse, while homophobia wages a backlash of counter legislations.

Gay marriage is now the polarizing issue of the day, distracting voters from real issues. So much so that Rabbi Michael Lerner, the national chair of the Network for Spiritual Progressives and editor of Tikkun, has come out with a passionate statement urging his readers to fully support the battle for gay rights because this issue is putting conservative right wing representatives in office all over the country, thus threatening to seriously derail any progress that might be made for all other social justice concerns.

He urged the reframing of the gay marriage issue, not as a matter of rights, but as a cornerstone of a new bottom line, in which governments are judged, not on how they maximize power or money, but on how they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and ecological sensitivity which includes supporting loving unions for all.

Yes, rights by itself was not getting us anywhere. Even I wasn't interested, especially if the movement's single-minded devotion to gay marriage was going to dig us deeper into anti-gay marriage legislation. It is time for a new strategy. One gay, old timer suggests that we should get back to our roots and build coalitions with other social justice groups as we had done in the 60's with the Black Panthers and labor parties. Yes, make friends, make ourselves useful. Make ourselves indispensable to society. Work for real change. Our nation's obsession with keeping queers out of mainstream society is robbing the entire country of the energy to solve the real problems of our time.

Forty states have statutes restricting marriage to a man and woman. I wish I didn't have to care, but not to care means allowing these states to say I am a second class citizen and that my intimate and sacred union with a person I love is so vile that it renders the entire covenant of marriage spiritually bereft if they were to allow me to be blessed by it. Why would I even want to be a part of such small-minded thinking? These are a people who do not want to share the joy of sacred union with gay people. Do they think we are animals?

They must do because, not only do they work to legislate that their churches not give us their blessing, but they work to make sure the government doesn't allow even a civil union. Now we are worse than animals. We are criminals. We are so morally reprehensible that the government must use its power to keep us from uniting under one roof and benefiting from the rights and privileges of straight couples. And heaven forbid that we should have such protection to raise children. Do you want to be part of this, oh my straight brothers and sisters?

The closing night film, Queens was a comedy about Spain's recent sanctioning of gay marriage and a mass public wedding that was to take place in celebration. Spain is Catholic and not particularly known for cultural progressiveness. That it should be in the first handful of countries to let gays tie the knot was eerie to watch. We in the U.S. practically invented gay liberation back at the Stonewall bar in 1969. We were the first to stage a protest march, the first to embrace gay pride, the first to hold a film festival; we are the home of the rainbow flag and the AIDS quilt. Are we now to be left behind in the cultural backwater our nation has become?


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