“Same-sex desire alone does not equal gayness. In order to be gay, a man has to learn to relate to the world around him in a distinctive way.” So writes David Halperin in How To Be Gay, expressing the contentious notion behind his controversial University of Michigan course of the same name. “‘Gay,’” he continues, “refers not just to something you are, but also to something you do... Gayness, then, is not a state or condition. It’s a mode of perception, an attitude, an ethos: in short, it is a practice.” American gay male life, he argues, is reflective of “a common culture” and “shared sense of self” that must be acquired, a “characteristic relation to mainstream culture” that must be “discovered” by gay male subjects who “resist the summons to experience the world in heterosexual and heteronormative ways.”
To Halperin, gay culture is something of value, able to enhance or enrich the perspective of people of any sexual orientation. But for Halperin, as for others, the gay rights movement seemed to have prioritized “normality” in ways that both denied and jeopardized gay culture, perhaps nowhere more so than in the effort to legalize gay marriage. With the U.S. Supreme Court having deemed same-sex marriage a right, we look to Halperin’s take on what “gay marriage” might mean for “gay culture.”
When gay people are deprived of a common, communal existence, of a social world of their own, the keynote of gay politics ceases to be resistance to heterosexual oppression and becomes, instead, assimilation—that is, accommodation to the mainstream, the drive to social acceptance and integration into society as a whole. It’s all about the need to fit in, to adapt yourself to the locality in which you already happen to be living and working. Issues like gay military service or marriage equality, which had formerly been about access to benefits, distributive justice, and the removal of discriminatory barriers, now become struggles over the symbolism of social belonging. They are reframed to center around social recognition, the definition of citizenship, the meaning of patriotism, the practice of religious worship, the idea of family. There are still important material demands behind such struggles for inclusion, but they tend to be subordinated, at least in the rhetoric of the movement, to the goals of assimilation and conformity.
In such a context, gay culture seems an increasingly bizarre, insubstantial, intangible, nebulous, irrelevant notion. It is the sign of a failure (or refusal) to assimilate. What would gay people want nowadays with a separate culture anyway? Such a thing might have made sense in the Bad Old Days of social oppression and exclusion. Now it is simply a barrier to progress. It impedes the achievement of assimilation. No wonder we keep asking, with barely suppressed impatience, why gay culture doesn’t simply disappear. Surely social acceptance and integration will spell the end of gay culture. Since gay people are no longer so oppressed, there is little reason for them to band together in separate social groups, let alone to form distinct cultural communities. The assimilation of gay people into straight society has put an end to all that. Gay culture is a vestige from an earlier time. It is archaic, obsolete. Gay culture has no future.
These predictions, I believe, overlook a crucial consideration. Social acceptance, the decriminalization of gay sex, the legalization of homosexual social and sexual institutions, the removal of barriers to same-sex marriage, to military service, to the priesthood and psychoanalysis, along with other previously off-limits professions, should not be confused with the end of sexual normativity, let alone the collapse of heterosexual dominance.